The IHU Variant or the B.1.640.2 lineage has been around before the Omicron variant, but has only managed to infect 12 identified cases so far in comparison to the 100,000 plus cases of Omicron in the US and UK alone.
Scientists in France have identified a new variant of SARS CoV-2, which possesses 46 mutations of which 14 are present on the spike protein of the virus. The researchers at IHU Mediterranee Infection, Marseille identified the new variant and dubbed it the 'IHU variant' of COVID-19 in the interim before it is given any official name.
The 'IHU variant' or the B.1.640.2 lineage of SARS CoV-2 has been identified in 12 cases so far near Marseilles but have not been seen in other countries or taken up for investigation by the World Health Organisation. The variant is thought to be linked to travel to Cameroon, with Cameroon or France being possible origins for the variant.
What is the 'IHU variant'?
The 'IHU variant' or the B.1.640.2 lineage of the SARS CoV-2 virus is a variant of the virus that contains several changes in its genes than the original 'wild' version of the virus that first emerged in 2019. The researchers at IHU Mediterranee found through genome sequencing that the lineage had "46 mutations and 37 deletions resulting in 30 amino acid substitutions and 12 deletions" from the original variant. Of these, “fourteen amino acid substitutions, including N501Y and E484K, and 9 deletions are located in the spike protein,” the scientists revealed in their pre-print paper posted on medRxiv.
The genomic sequencing was done using Oxford Nanopore Technologies on GridION instruments to completion within less than eight hours.
Two of the mutations of the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that binds to human cells that then allows the virus to infect them, are N501Y and E484K. The N501Y mutation was first identified in the 'Alpha' or B.1.1.7 variant and has been linked to increased transmissibility. The E484K mutation is an escape mutation that allows the virus to potentially evade the antibody response of the human immune system. This means that variants of the virus with the E484K mutation are able to infect individuals more easily than other variants even if they are vaccinated. The mutation is present in the B.1.1.7, B.1.351 (‘Beta variant), and P.1 (Gamma) lineages.
The presence of these mutations means that the 'IHU variant' is most likely more transmissible and more resistant against vaccines than the wild variant of COVID-19.
Why this is not all bad news?
While the emergence of another super mutated variant of the COVID-19 virus may seem like an immediate cause for concern, it may not necessarily be the case. The first case of the B.1.640.2 lineage or ‘IHU Variant’, or the index case, was identified in mid-November. That is even before the identification and emergence of the Omicron variant.
In nearly seven weeks, the B.1.640.2 lineage has only managed to be identified in less than 20 cases so far. France has a strong surveillance system for COVID-19 variants, which is how a variant with only 12 identified cases was picked up, so it is unlikely that there are exponentially more hidden cases of B.1.640.2 lineage.
In a shorter amount of time, the Omicron variant has infected over a hundred thousand individuals in just the UK and the US alone. The Omicron variant has a total of 50 mutations as well, with nearly 36 on just the spike protein alone. Just the presence of a large number of mutations does not predicate the danger of a variant alone.
The B.1.640.2 lineage has had its time and at this point, it seems extremely unlikely that it can outcompete against the Omicron variant, which thankfully does cause less mild symptoms of COVID-19.
As the scientists point out, the real concerning factor about the 'IHU variant' is the ease with which new variants can emerge and possibly spread to other geographical areas.
"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,” the researchers stated in their paper.