WASHINGTON — A variant of the coronavirus recently discovered in France does not appear to be poised for a major breakout, at least partially quelling concerns that a new surge was imminent even as the earlier surges caused by the Delta and Omicron variants continued around the world.
“That virus has had a lot of chances to pick up,” a World Health Organization official said on Tuesday of the new variant, nicknamed “the IHU” for the French research center where it was discovered late last year.
The variant is thought to have originated in the African nation of Cameroon; it was carried to southeastern France by a vaccinated traveler who “developed mild respiratory symptoms,” according to a study by the French researchers who identified the strain, which carries the scientific name of B.1.640.2. The original patient then infected 11 other people.
“It is too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this IHU variant based on these 12 cases,” the French researchers wrote in their paper, which saw preliminary publication last week online.
Notably, the IHU variant has 46 mutations, or changes that arise as a pathogen continues to proliferate and evolve. With billions of people still unvaccinated around the world, the coronavirus has continued to spread with relative ease, evolving as it does so.
A new variant could have presented public health officials with yet another challenge as they scramble to update masking and vaccination requirements to suit rapidly evolving conditions. Boosters are now widely seen as necessary in many parts of the United States, since Omicron has an ability to escape vaccine protection, though it often results in more mild symptoms. Masks are also required in many parts of the country again.
Epidemiologists have called for greater genomic surveillance, which would signal that a new variant has emerged. To prevent that from happening, public health experts say, the global vaccination effort has to become a priority for developed nations like the United States.