New variants of the coronavirus continue to be discovered every week. Most of them are harmless. They usually appear briefly and then vanish, while others persist quietly but never spread, and only a few make the World Health Organization’s list of “Variants of Concern.”
As a result, it’s unusual that a variant first identified in France more than a month ago, which has yet to spread beyond a small initial cluster of cases, is grabbing so many headlines this week.
The researchers who found it decided to call it “IHU” after the university hospital where it was discovered, the IHU Méditerranée Infection in Marseille, France, which is led by the controversial scientist Dr. Didier Raoult, who made hydroxychloroquine a household name.
Users on social media jumped on the potential homonym with “I hate you,” and the variant registered as B.1.640.2 quickly gained attention. The reports have been trending online this week as the globe focuses on new strains of the virus.
The variant, which now has 46 mutations and 36 deletions that distinguishes it genetically from the original coronavirus identified in China, was discovered in November in a person who had recently returned from Cameroon in central Africa. Eleven more patients, all connected to that trip, were infected with what the IHU identified as a novel variant on December 9.
The first incidence of the Omicron variant was officially detected in France the same week. Omicron is now responsible for half of all new coronavirus infections in France, triggering a surge that saw the country report a record 335,000 new cases per day on Wednesday. The “IHU” variant, on the other hand, has not been found in anyone since the first 12 people were identified.
This week, the World Health Organization downplayed worries about the variant. Abdi Mahamud, a WHO incident manager on COVID, said at a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday that it “has been on our radar,” but that it hasn’t shown to be a significant concern.
On December 29, the researchers who named the variant “IHU” pre-published a research report in which they stated that it was “another example of the unpredictability of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants, and of their introduction in a given geographical area from abroad.”
They concluded, however, that it was “too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this IHU variant.”