A new variant of the coronavirus, named IHU, has been detected in France and scientists have warned that it is more infectious than the highly transmissible omicron variant that is fast becoming the dominant strain of the virus around the world.

First discovered on December 10, 2021, by scientists from infectious diseases research centre IHU Mediterranee Infection, IHU now accounts for 12 COVID-19 cases in Marseilles, France, but has not been detected elsewhere. Neither has it been officially designated as a variant for investigation by the World Health Organization (WHO).

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That being said, scientists have warned that the IHU variant has mutations that make it potentially more transmissible than omicron. The scientists announced their discovery via a pre-print paper posted on medRxiv and said that they identified IHU through “genomes obtained by using next-generation sequencing with Oxford Nanopore Technologies on GridION instruments.”

According to the paper, IHU contains 46 mutations, more than omicron, which makes it particularly infectious and resistant to vaccines. The IHU variant contains the N501Y mutation, first seen in the Alpha variant of the coronavirus, and experts believe this mutation makes the strain highly transmissible. Furthermore, the IHU variant also contains the E484K mutation, which could make it particularly resistant to COVID-19 vaccines.

“Fourteen amino acid substitutions, including N501Y and E484K, and 9 deletions are located in the spike protein. This genotype pattern led to create a new Pangolin lineage named B.1.640.2, which is a phylogenetic sister group to the old B.1.640 lineage renamed B.1.640.1,” the scientists wrote in the paper.

As for the origins of IHU, the scientists said that all 12 cases in Marseilles were linked to travel to Cameroon in Africa, but there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the variant originated there.

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“Overall, these observations show once again the unpredictability of the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants and their introduction from abroad, and they exemplify the difficulty to control such introduction and subsequent spread,” the scientists wrote, adding that their observations “also warrant the implementation of genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2.”

They went on to say, “It is too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this IHU variant based on these 12 cases,” adding that the new variant was being studied to understand how it reacts to anti-bodies produced by vaccines or prior COVID-19 infections.