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UBC professor comments on threat of 'IHU' COVID-19 variant with 46 mutations

The WHO addressed global concern about the variant in a briefing.
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As Canadian health officials grapple with an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases, researchers in France have identified another variant of interest. 

As Canadian health officials and their global counterparts grapple with an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases, researchers in France have identified another variant of interest. 

With 46 mutations from the original COVID-19 strain, variant B.1.640.2, nicknamed 'IHU' by researchers at the IHU Mediterranee Infection, was first identified in November and has raised international concern. However, case numbers haven't been rising at the pace that Omicron did after its discovery. 

But that doesn't mean scientists won't keep their eye on the strain. 

A proposal in The Panago Network highlights: "In a similar vein to the recent split of B.1.1.529 (Omicron) into two sister sub-lineages, it appears B.1.640 may also have a similar issue with a major group constating of the vast majority of sequences and a small outgroup which appears related but has a very different set of mutations...and includes sequences from France and England, indicating some degree of spread."

While it was identified around the same time as Omicron, IHU hasn't had any widespread infection. In a press briefing Tuesday (Jan. 4), WHO incident manager Abdi Mahamud said the organization was keeping the variant on its "radar" but that it had not spread despite having opportunities.

Naturally, news of a new variant rises trepidation around the world and here in B.C. But one local researcher feels the strain is not a threat at this time.

B.1.640.2 variant in B.C. 

Dr. Sarah Otto of UBC told Vancouver Is Awesome that she doesn't currently see the strain as a threat to public safety in British Columbia. 

"Yes, it has 46 mutations, but after two years of evolution, that isn’t that unusual," she explained, remarking that most COVID variants now carry between 40 to 60 mutations relative to the Wuhan ancestral strain.

"Also, most of the B.1.640.2 sequences were observed last year (mainly in October and November), and they haven’t been rising in frequency as far as we can see."

Otto, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Theoretical and Experimental Evolution, added that her interpretation is that there was a "divergence in a fairly isolated population," which explains why the strain wasn't previously detected. Further, some authors estimate that it diverged up to a year ago (January 2021) from the B.1.640.1 virus seen elsewhere. 

"There has been talk about it being more 'infectious' but I think there is no data on that, just speculation based on the mutations carried," she said. "Based on the data that is available, it is strongly selected against, relative to Omicron."

Regardless of its potential transmissibility, Otto underscores that she's glad genome centres around the world are keeping an eye on unusual variants.

"I just don’t think this is one that should concern the public, based on the data so far."