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New Covid variant detected in south of France: what is known about it

Experts are working to determine the transmissibility and virulence of the B.1.640.2 variant but say it is not currently a matter of concern

The B.1.640.2 variant has infected at least 12 people in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, but experts say that it is not yet a cause for concern Pic: Marina Litvinova / Shutterstock

A new Covid variant has been detected by the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection (IHU) in Marseille. 

Researchers at the IHU, which was founded by Professor Didier Raoult, identified the B.1.640.2 variant in late November, finding that it has 46 mutations, 23 of which are in its spike protein.

Omicron has around 50 mutations, including 32 in its spike protein, which plays a key role in enabling the virus to penetrate an organism’s cells.

Little else is yet known about the new variant, which is known to have infected 12 people in Forcalquier in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and has been named IHU. 

The first case was linked to a fully vaccinated person who had recently travelled to Cameroon, and whose positive test result did not reflect the spike gene mutations corresponding with the Delta variant, which was dominant at the time. 

“It is too early to say” whether the new variant is more transmissible or more virulent than Delta, Professor Philippe Colson of the IHU Méditerranée Infection told France 3.

“The Agence Régionale de Santé [regional health authority] is currently carrying out an investigation in Forcalquier to find out more.”

Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, also Tweeted that “B.1.640.2 predates Omicron” and “in all that time there are exactly 20 sequences (compared to the >120k Omicrons in less time).”

The new variant is therefore “def[initely] not one worth worrying about too much at the mo[ment].”

“There haven’t been any new sequences uploaded since before Christmas... this virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialised (as far as we can tell at least...).” 

B.1.640.2 is linked to the B.1.640 variant, which was first detected in the Republic of Congo at the end of September and which was classed as a variant under monitoring by the World Health Organisation on November 22.

By December 27, 188 cases of this strain had been recorded in Hauts-de-France, 171 in Ile-de-France and 146 in Normandy.

“Genetically, the new variant could be the ancestor of the Congo-Breton variant, which was discovered in Brittany two months ago,” Prof Colson said. This variant caused around 150 Covid cases, but then disappeared. 

You can read more about the new variant in a paper published by researchers on medRxiv, but which has not yet been peer reviewed. 

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More leading scientists in France say Omicron could be good news

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