While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has lost all credibility since its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was found enjoying President of China Xi Jinping’s hospitality at a time when the UN agency should have declared Covid-19 as a pandemic in January 2020, it is once again saying that a new strain of coronavirus is not to be taken seriously. But the new Covid-19 variant reported from France is believed to be much more infectious than Omicron. Scientists have named it IHU.
The WHO said the variant found in France has not become much of a threat since it was first identified in November 2021. The variant “has been on our radar,” Abdi Mahamud, a WHO incident manager on Covid, said yesterday. “That virus had a lot of chances to pick up.” The variant, under investigation, was identified in 12 people in the southern Alps around the time that Omicron was discovered in South Africa last year.
The mutation of the Chinese virus detected in South Africa has since travelled the globe, unlike the French one that researchers at the IHU Mediterranee Infection — under the leadership of scientist Didier Raoult — nicknamed IHU.
The first patient identified with the strain was vaccinated and had just returned from Cameroon, IHU scientists wrote in a paper published on the medRxiv server in late December. It’s “too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of IHU variant based on these 12 cases,” they wrote in the article that is yet to be peer-reviewed. Raoult had earlier stirred a row by recommending treatment with hydroxychloroquine.
IHU or B.1.640.2 is a new Covid-18 mutant that has 46 mutations more than Omicron, scientists say. The findings, published in a paper, state, “Fourteen amino acid substitutions, including N501Y and E484K, and 9 deletions are located in the spike protein. This genotype pattern led to creating a new Pangolin lineage named B.1.640.2, which is a phylogenetic sister group to the old B.1.640 lineage renamed B.1.640.1”.
The researchers further wrote, “These data are another example of the unpredictability of the emergence of Sars-CoV-2 variants, and of their introduction in a given geographical area from abroad.”
Since the French researchers made the discovery, the new “IHU” variant has raised alarm among epidemiologists. One of the first to react to the new development was the US-based scientist Eric Feigl-Ding who shared the news on Twitter.
Feigl-Ding however pointed out that there is a possibility that the variant can be identified using a shortcut technique of “PCR analysis of signals different from Delta and Omicron”. This might be useful as it may help identify the variant quicker without the need for genome sequencing as with Omicron.
In a thread of tweets, Feigl-Ding explained that while new variants of Covid-19 kept emerging, it is not necessary that all will be more dangerous.
While not much is as yet known or confirmed about the new variant being reported from France, Omicron cases have spread across the world. India itself has nearly 2000 cases of the new “variant of concern” with metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru reporting a major spike. Several states and union territories in the country have imposed restrictions such as night and weekend curfews, curbs on public transport and closure of public places like gyms, cinema halls, malls, schools and offices. Authorities have been urging people to get vaccinated and maintain Covid-19 protocols as the only way to prevent catching the virus.