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‘IHU’ variant of Covid-19 explained: Few cases, limited spread

IHU variant of Covid-19: This variant, B.1.640, has been found mostly in France so far, although it has also been detected in several other countries. The variant was reported to have 46 mutations, including some in the spike protein.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Pune |
Updated: January 7, 2022 9:17:32 am
A man walks past an illustration of the novel coronavirus. (File)

Even as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to infect people in large numbers across the world, news about the emergence of another highly-mutated variant spread rapidly on Tuesday, raising fears of yet another wave of infections. This variant, B.1.640, has been found mostly in France so far, although it has also been detected in several other countries. The variant was reported to have 46 mutations, including some in the spike protein.

Not a new variant

The B.1.640 variant is not new. It has been around for at least three months. The sudden discussion around it was triggered by the circulation of a week-old study by researchers from Méditerranée Infection in Marseille, part of France’s Instituts hospitalo-universitaires (IHU, or University Hospital Institutes).

The study reports the detection of a new variant in November last year among 12 people living in the same geographical area of southeastern France, the first of which had returned from a trip to Cameroon. The researchers said the variant found in these people was very similar to the one they had found earlier and named IHU.

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The IHU variant that the researchers mention is B.1.640 which, according to global databases, was first discovered way back in January last year. The one that the French researchers found among people in November has now been classified as a sub-lineage B.1.640.2.

Not spreading rapidly

According to outbreak.info, a website that tracks the prevalence of different variants in genome sequencing databases, at least 400 infections with the B.1.640 variant have so far been identified. It has been detected in at least 19 countries. Interestingly, one of these sequences happens to be from India as well, the only one out of the roughly 90,000 sequences from India deposited in the global databases.

The highest number of sequences of this variant has come from France, where 287 cases have been confirmed until now. There are 17 cases from Germany and 16 from the United Kingdom. But the country where this variant appears to be the most prevalent is Congo, where 39 of the 454 genome sequences done so far belong to the B.1.640 lineage.

Way back in November, the World Health Organization (WHO) had classified B.1.640 as a variant under monitoring, or VUM, the entry-level categorisation of a variant that is considered worth keeping an eye out for.

Not a concern

While the large number of significant mutations in this variant has attracted the interest of researchers, and raised concerns among the public, the B.1.640 is not spreading at a rate that is unnerving. It is certainly not as alarming as the spread of Omicron. According to the website outbreak.info, this variant was last detected on December 25. After that, no new case has been detected in the global databases.

“Nothing to panic or worry too much (about) at the moment, given the evidence. But clearly something that needs to be watched closely for the coming weeks,” said Vinod Scaria, a scientist at Delhi-based Institute of Genomic and Integrative Biology, in a tweet on Tuesday.

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