New mutant Covid variant discovered – but should we be concerned?

An outbreak of a new, highly-mutated strain of coronavirus has been discovered in south-eastern France.

The first identified case of ‘variant IHU’, or B.1.640.2, is believed to have returned from Cameroon before 11 others were also found to have the virus with an “atypical combination” of mutations.

The findings were published online in a study on medRxiv, a site operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and Yale University.

According to the study, the man had developed symptoms two days after returning from Cameroon in mid-November before undergoing a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

A bird's eye view of a crowded street.
A new variant has appeared in south-eastern France, with a study finding a high level of mutations. Source: Getty/File

The results revealed “an atypical combination… that did not correspond to the pattern of the Delta variant involved in almost all SARS-CoV-2 infections at that time”, the study stated.

The variant was then detected in seven other patients, two adults and five children.

At the end of November, four other people living in the same city were also confirmed to have the IHU variant.

Researchers found B.1.640.2 had 46 new mutations as well as 37 deletions.

“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 study noted.

The study is yet to be peer-reviewed.

Should Australians be concerned about the new variant?

The emergence of yet another variant is no doubt unwelcome news as Covid case numbers spike globally due to the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.

But is the IHU variant one we should be concerned about?

Perhaps not yet, one expert has told Yahoo News.

Professor of International Health and Dean International at Curtin University Jaya Dantas noted that B.1.640.2 actually emerged before the Omicron variant.

Professor Jaya Dantas
Professor Jaya Dantas said the new strain is not of concern at the moment, but it should be monitored. Source: Jaya Dantas

“… it’s not something to worry about it at this stage, because there were positive samples of this variant before the Omicron variant began ripping through the world, so it actually predates Omicron,” Professor Dantas said.

“It is a sub lineage of B.1.640, which has caused some concern, but it couldn’t compete with Delta."

Professor Dantas said as Covid is an airborne virus, there is always the risk we could see the IHU variant in Australia, but it's unclear what sort of impact it might have.

“It’s still early days to actually make any assumptions about this, it might be worth watching what happens in France over the next week or so.”

Imperial College London virologist Dr Tom Peacock tweeted further information which supports Professor Dantas’ statements.

“Lots of chat about B.1.640.2 in the last few days - just a few points to keep in mind,” he wrote, explaining once again that the new variant predates Omicron and that over a longer timeframe, there have been 20 sequences compared to the 120,000+ Omicron sequences.

“Def not one worth worrying about too much at the mo… [sic]," he wrote.

France introduces new restrictions after cases surge

On Sunday (local time), French authorities announced children aged six and older would have to wear masks in indoor venues as new cases of the omicron variant surged past 200,000 for the fourth consecutive day.

But the following day a much lower figure of 67,641 new cases was reported.

Previously children aged 11 or older were obliged to wear masks, but the government has lowered the age in a bid to avoid shutting down schools after the holiday break.

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