People wearing face masks wait in a crowd. Share on Pinterest
Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • The new variant was detected before the discovery of Omicron and has not spread widely, leading experts to say it’s not yet a major concern.
  • The new variant was named B.1.640.2, but scientists have nicknamed it “IHU.”
  • Researchers said the traveler was an adult man previously vaccinated against COVID-19 who had recently returned from Cameroon, and was tested in mid-November 2021 after developing mild respiratory symptoms.

A new COVID-19 variant made news after a French traveler returning from Africa tested positive for it in November, according to a study that has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Researchers said the traveler was an adult man previously vaccinated against COVID-19 who had recently returned from Cameroon. He was tested in mid-November of 2021 after developing mild respiratory symptoms.

The new variant was named B.1.640.2, but scientists have nicknamed it “IHU.”

While the variant was detected before Omicron, the study was only made public this month, drawing new attention to IHU.

Robert G. Lahita, MD, PhD, director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at Saint Joseph Health, and author of “Immunity Strong,” said researchers look at RNA [ribonucleic acid] to detect new variants. RNA is a nucleic acid similar to DNA but a single strand.

“Every COVID variant has a specific RNA signature, which we can see when conducting a PCR test, for example,” he told Healthline.

“When we see a distinct signature that varies from the ones we have already documented — Delta, Omicron, etc. — we know it’s a different, and new, variant of the COVID virus,” he continued.

Researchers say IHU contains 46 mutations, significantly more than Omicron, which may make it more infectious and resistant to vaccine protection.

Roughly 12 cases of the new variant have been identified so far near Marseille, France.

The strain has the N501Y mutation, which experts suspect might make it more transmissible.

According to Lahita, the number of mutations “speaks” to how different the variant is from the original version of the virus.

“This is important because it alters the stereochemistry (structure) of the spike protein,” he said. “The effectiveness of the immune system depends on recognizing the structure of a virus in order to create an immune response.”

Experts emphasize that IHU was identified before the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“For those interested, first upload of B.1.640.2 onto GISAID was on 4th Nov 2021 from Paris by Roquebert, et al,” Tom Peacock, PhD, a virologist from Imperial College, London, posted on social media.

He pointed out that data about Omicron was first published almost 3 weeks later on Nov. 22.

Abdi Mahamud, incident manager for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID-19 Incident Management Support Team, said during a recent press conference that the B.1.640.2 variant “had a lot of chances to pick up,” over the last 2 months.

He added that the WHO is monitoring this variant, but insisted that they don’t see cause for concern just yet.

Lahita said that newly identified variants shouldn’t be cause for panic, and it’s important to wait for more information.

“It’s important to wait and see the clinical results,” he said. “Will it be severe on people like Delta, or will it be more mild like Omicron? Will it spread quickly, slowly, or not at all? How effective is the virus on those who are vaccinated? Unvaccinated?”

He explained that only after we have that information will we be able to determine whether a new variant is “cause for concern.”

When asked about the chances that we’ll see another variant like Delta as the pandemic continues, Lahita replied that there’s no way to know.

“Viruses can up mutate or down mutate,” said Lahita. “Although Omicron is an up mutation, it’s clinically less severe than Alpha or Delta. But another variant could up mutate and be as bad, or worse, than Delta — they all behave differently and there’s no way to predict the course.”

According to Lahita, the best way to protect ourselves is by getting vaccinated and staying healthy.

“Get your exercise in, cut out smoking, limit your alcohol intake, and get enough quality sleep each night,” he said. “For right now, you don’t need to go crazy until the [IHU] variant, or future variants, become significant.”

A new variant, nicknamed IHU, was identified in France last November. The World Health Organization says the virus has had ample opportunity to spread and so far has not.

Experts say that not every new variant is a cause for alarm and we should wait for more information before becoming concerned.

They also say that the best way to protect ourselves during the pandemic is to get vaccinated, get a booster, and make healthy lifestyle changes.