Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead with the World Health Organization, told reporters at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday that the mutation is considered a “variant under monitoring.”
The variant, known as B.1.640, was dubbed the IHU variant recently by researchers at the Méditerranée Infection University Hospital Institute (IHU) in Marseilles, France, Forbes reports.
What do we know about the IHU variant?
The WHO said the variant emerged in multiple countries in September 2021 and was labelled a variant worth monitoring in November. The other two categories of greater significance the WHO uses to track variants are “variant of concern,” which includes Delta and Omicron, and “variant of interest.”
According to the French researchers, IHU was found in 12 people in the country’s south at roughly the same time that Omicron was discovered in South Africa last year. Omicron has since spread around the world, driving up infections and increasing hospitalizations in countries like Canada.
“Within France, less than one per cent of the samples that were sequenced … are of this particular variant,” Van Kerkhove said.
“It’s important that we track this, particularly because of the number of the mutations it has, but it isn’t circulating widely at the moment.”
Van Kerkhove did not provide exact figures of worldwide IHU cases.
Why are we hearing about the IHU variant now?
Even though the IHU variant was discovered in September in multiple countries, it began making headlines this week after a group of French researchers published a preprint on the mutation on Dec. 29.
The variant has also been the topic of many social media posts, with some expressing dismay at the discovery of a new variant.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, previously told Global News the IHU variant is worth monitoring, like any other variant that emerges.
“It’s pretty clear that Omicron pushed everything else aside, and that’s the one that we’ve got to contend with,” he said.
“These variants are going to continue to arrive … and this is just another reason why we need to really focus on global vaccine equity, get everyone dose one, two and three around the world. That’ll at least reduce the probability that these variants will continue to emerge.”
Van Kerkhove assured that current COVID-19 vaccines work against all variants that are circulating, and pushed for people to get inoculated.
“They are highly effective against preventing severe disease and death, and I think that’s really important for the public to know and has been said many times, when it is your turn, get vaccinated because it’s really critical,” she said.
“Vaccines save lives.”
–with files from Reuters.