As Omicron cases continue to surge, a new COVID-19 variant with 46 mutations has been identified and it is spreading through a region in southeastern France. Twelve cases have been reported so far.
Information on the new variant is extremely limited, but it is thought to have originated in Cameroon and carry multiple mutations in the spike protein. The area most affected, which is near Marseille, has shown a significant increase in hospitalizations, but it is possible that lower vaccination rates and an older population may be to blame and it remains far too early to draw conclusions on the new variant’s epidemiology.
Assigned the Pangolin designation B.1.640.2 and currently nicknamed IHU, the variant is a "sister" of the B.1.640 strain (now named B.1.640.1), which was labeled a "Variant Under Monitoring" by the WHO in November 2021. IHU was first identified in mid-November in Paris, meaning it actually predates Omicron. Despite its age, only around 20 sequences of IHU have been discovered since its emergence, while Omicron rapidly rose to dominance in almost every nation in the world, suggesting Omicron may be outcompeting the new variant.
It has now been fully described in a preprint published to MedRxiv, which analyzed the new variant and identified the 46 mutations found within. This work is yet to be peer-reviewed and does not contain any information on severity or transmissibility.
The authors claim the first person found to have the IHU variant had returned from a trip to Cameroon three days before, and was fully vaccinated and boosted. It has now infected 12 people in Southern France, but experts are stating that it is not cause for alarm just yet.