France, January 5, 2022, (Forbes)– One thing that’s clear about the Covid-19 coronavirus, it can mutate. And mutate. And mutate. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that yet another new variant has been detected in France with 46 mutations and 37 deletions in its genetic code, many affecting the spike protein. This variant currently bears the name B.1.640.2.
It’s also been temporarily dubbed the “variant IHU” because a team from the Méditerranée Infection University Hospital Institute (IHU) in Marseilles, France, was the first to report the variant in a pre-print uploaded to MedRxiv on December 29.
Un nouveau variant COVID-19 à été détecté à l’IHU Méditerranée Infection issu de patients de Forcalquier. Il a été baptisé variant IHU et déposé sur GISAID sous le nom de B.1.640.2. pic.twitter.com/Rh3klIxy0w— IHU Méditerranée Infection (@IHU_Marseille) December 9, 2021
It’s not yet clear whether this B.1.640.2 variant will be that much trouble or anything like the Delta and Omicron variants. Before the World Health Organization (WHO) serves up some Pi and gives this B.1.640.2 variant a new Greek letter name, there has to be evidence that this variant is somehow more transmissible, more likely to cause severe Covid-19, or more able to evade existing immune protection than previous versions. So far there are no obvious signs that any of these may be the case. Remember different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. Nevertheless, this new variant does merit some close watching.
The “IHU variant” may not even be newer than the Omicron variant. The first reported case was detected in mid-November 2021. A man living in southeastern France had returned home from a trip to Cameroon. Two days later he began experiencing mild respiratory symptoms. The next day, the man, who was already vaccinated against Covid-19, was tested for the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). That nasopharyngeal sample came back positive and was eventually found to be harboring the B.1.640.2 variant. Since then, at least 11 other people in the same vicinity have tested positive for the B.1.640.2 variant.
In the pre-print, the IUH team (consisting of Philippe Colson, Jérémy Delerce, Emilie Burel, Jordan Dahan, Agnès Jouffret, Florence Fenollar, Nouara Yahi, Jacques Fantini, Bernard La Scola, and Didier Raoult) indicated that this variant has 46 nucleotide substitutions and 37 deletions.
What’s a nucleotide? Well, it ain’t some kind of radioactive Tide pod. The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) defines a nucleotide as “the basic building block of nucleic acids.” The virus’s genetic material consists of many different nucleotides strung together in a chain called ribonucleic acid (RNA). Every three consecutive nucleotides in this chain can constitute what’s called a codon. And guess what this codon can do? It can “code on” amino acids. Each triplet of nucleotides can code for the formation of a particular amino acid. Amino acids in turn are the building blocks for proteins. Therefore, if you mess with the nucleotides in the RNA by either deleting them or swapping in new ones, you can affect the amino acids that are used to form different proteins.
The nucleotide changes in this so-called “variant IHU” resulted in 30 amino acid switcheroos and 12 amino acids being deleted in various virus proteins. This included 14 amino acids in the virus’s spike protein being substituted, including N501Y and E484K, and nine being deleted. Any change in the spike protein will earn the attention of scientists, sort of like when your significant other suddenly buys an entire new wardrobe and begins showering much more frequently.
That’s because the spike protein plays a number of pivotal roles. As you may know, the spike protein lines the surface of the SARS-CoV-2, making the virus look like a spiky massage ball or one of those maces used in BDSM, not that you would know anything about that. Since the virus uses its spike proteins like grubby little hands to latch on to and enter your cells, changes in the spike protein could potentially affect the virus’s ability to infect your cells. Moreover, altering the spike protein could affect your immune system’s ability to recognize and defend against the virus. After all, the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Astra-Zeneca-Oxford Covid-19 vaccines work by getting your cells to produce spike proteins, having your immune system see these spike proteins, and building up defenses specifically against these spike proteins. A virus with a different enough spike protein can be less recognizable by your immune system.
And, no, the “IHU” variant does not stand for the “I Hate You” variant:
Again, treat any such changes in the spike protein as you would major changes in your significant other’s clothing or hygiene habits. Don’t jump to conclusions until you see what this means. Mutations can make little difference, make a virus weaker, or make a virus stronger in different ways. It’s just not clear yet what this B.1.640.2 set of mutations might do.
That’s why the WHO has not yet deemed this IHU variant a variant of interest, a variant of concern, or even a variant under investigation. For now, consider this to be a variant of we-don’t-know-what-this-means-because-there-haven’t-been-enough-data-and- studies-yet-to-tell-please-do-not-jump-to-conclusions. The pre-print did say that “It is too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this IHU variant based on these 12 cases.” Twelve may be enough for a box of doughnuts but it’s certainly not enough patients to determine how transmissible the virus may be or how likely it is to cause more severe Covid-19 outcomes. Everyone will have to just, wait for it, wait for it, wait for more information about this variant.
The B.1.640.2 is yet another reminder that the SARS-CoV-2 is gonna keep mutating. Therefore, as long as the virus keeps spreading and reproducing, mutations will occur, and new variants will continue to emerge. Many of these variants won’t be stronger than currently circulating versions of the SARS-CoV-2. Every now and then though a more transmissible or more virulent variant may emerge. That’s why the Omicron and Delta variants were not really surprises to anyone in the know.
That shouldn’t change the approach to the pandemic though. As more and more people around the world get vaccinated making their immune systems more and more familiar with the virus, the SARS-CoV-2 will be less and less able to harm everyone. Over time, your immune system will have gone from that virgin on a first date that it was in 2020 to a much wiser, more experienced dater that can better recognize trouble early, no matter how much the virus changes its spike wardrobe.
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