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Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.
We’re a far cry from the start of the pandemic when COVID was supposed to end as long as everyone stayed home for a hot second. By now, new variants seem to be popping up constantly, moving us further away from the finish line.
One of the latest to be identified is the IHU variant, which was recently discovered in Marseille, France. So how bad is it? Experts aren’t sure. But on January 6th, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the IHU variant has had ample opportunity to spread since it was first detected in November and that they’re not currently concerned.
First––what are variants?
Every time the virus makes a copy of itself, there’s room for error (also called a mutation), and if an error is significant enough, it can change the virus. The more a virus spreads, the more opportunities there are for those little changes, and sometimes, it can change enough to evade your immune system, even if you’ve been infected or vaccinated in the past.
These sorts of changes can produce unique versions of the virus that can become the predominant form of a virus in a population. Take, for example, the delta variant, which quickly took over as the most common form of COVID in the United States because it is up to twice as infectious as the original virus, or the omicron variant, that spreads more rapidly than the original virus (CDC, 2021-a; CDC, 2021-b).
How is the IHU variant different?
Also known as the B.1.640.2 variant, the IHU variant is pretty different—in at least 46 ways. Researchers found 46 mutations in the IHU variant. About a third of the mutations were seen in the spike proteins, a component on the outside surface of the virus that our immune system uses to identify and fight the virus (Colson, 2021).
Mutations in this protein may help the variant evade your immune system, even if you’ve already caught COVID or been vaccinated (Laiton-Donato, 2021).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has not yet classified IHU as a variant of concern. WHO officials do say that the virus has been on their radar since it was first identified in late 2020, around the same time as the omicron variant (Time, 2022; NYPost, 2022).
How prevalent is the IHU variant?
Currently, the IHU variant isn’t widespread. The first case occurred in someone who had just returned from a trip to Cameroon in South Africa (Colson, 2021). In fact, its name, IHU, comes from the IHU Mediterranee Infection, the French Institute in which it was identified (Seattle Times, 2022).
The most prevalent COVID variants circulating in the United States at this time are the Delta and Omicron variants, which account for over 99% of cases (CDC, 2022). However, it’s difficult to predict whether these numbers will change over time.
The basics: a quick primer on COVID-19
Should you worry about the IHU variant?
It’s hard to estimate which coronavirus variants will dominate or how dangerous a new one will be. Even though mutations may open the door for a virus to evade vaccines or treatments, researchers don’t know what will happen. They’re continuing to study specimens from the individuals who were infected to learn more about how contagious or dangerous this variant will be (Colson, 2021).
Getting vaccinated is still one of the most effective ways to protect yourself and others against COVID. As new variants emerge, scientists will continue working on vaccines to ensure that we are as protected as possible against the new strains.
It’s quite possible that the COVID-19 vaccine will become one we receive annually, just like the flu shot we get each year to protect us against influenza.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021-a). Delta Variant: What We Know About the Science. Retrieved on Jan. 4, 2022 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/variant-info.html#Interest
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021-b). Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know. Retrieved on Jan. 4, 2022 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/omicron-variant.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2022). COVID Data Tracker. Retrieved on Jan. 5, 2022 from https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#variant-proportions
- Colson, P., Delerce, J., Burel, E., Dahan, J., Jouffret, A., Fenollar, F., et al. (2021). Emergence in Southern France of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant of probably Cameroonian origin harbouring both substitutions N501Y and E484K in the spike protein. medRxiv. Pre-print. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.12.24.21268174. Retrieved from https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.12.24.21268174v1.full
- The Independent. (2022). IHU: New Covid variant with 46 mutations worries experts in France. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-new-covid-variant-mutations-b1986241.html
- Laiton-Donato, K., Franco-Muñoz, C., Álvarez-Díaz, D. A., Ruiz-Moreno, H. A., Usme-Ciro, J. A., Prada, D. A., et al. (2021). Characterization of the emerging B.1.621 variant of interest of SARS-CoV-2. Infection, Genetics and Evolution: Journal of Molecular Epidemiology and Evolutionary Genetics in Infectious Diseases, 95,105038. doi: 10.1016/j.meegid.2021.105038. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34403832/
- NYPost.com. (2021). WHO Official Downplays New COVID IHU Variant Found in France. Retrieved Jan. 5, 2022 from https://nypost.com/2022/01/04/who-downplays-new-ihu-covid-19-variant-discovered-in-france/
- Planas, D., Saunders, N., Maes, P., Benhassine, F. G., Planchais, C., Porrot, F., et al. (2021). Considerable escape of SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron to antibody neutralization. bioRxiv. Doi: 10.1038/d41586-021-03827-2. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03827-2
- Seattle Times. (2022). New COVID variant ‘IHU’ with 46 mutations detected in France. Retrieved Jan. 5, 2022 from https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/new-covid-variant-ihu-with-46-mutations-detected-in-france/
- Time.com. (2021). WHO Official Downplays New COVID IHU Variant Found in France. Retrieved Jan. 5, 2022 from https://time.com/6133106/ihu-new-covid-variant/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.