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What we know so far about the IHU COVID-19 variant

By SAAB LARIOSA Published Jan 08, 2022 1:00 am

Yet another COVID-19 variant has piqued public interest amid the surge of the Omicron variant — though health experts say it shouldn't be a cause of concern at the moment.

The IHU variant discovered in France caught wind when President Rodrigo Duterte said that the variant will eventually enter the country "whether we like it or not."

“Another variant has also been reported in the so-called IHU variant which was first detected in France last November. Dadating rin ito whether we like it or not, dadating ‘to,” Duterte said during his Jan. 6 Talk to the People amid discussing the spike of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that IHU has been on their radar, but further research and studies are needed to raise concern.

“Yes, we are monitoring, and we are aware [of] it. But right now, that virus had a lot of chances to pick up, said WHO's Dr. Abdi Mahamud when asked about IHU during a Jan. 4 United Nations briefing.

Here's what we know so far about the IHU, or B.1.640, variant:

Origins

The B.1.640 variant was first detected among 12 people in France last September 2021. The acronym 'IHU' comes from the researchers from Méditerranée Infection University Hospital Institute (IHU) which first discovered the variant. 

As of Jan. 4, WHO classifies IHU as a "variant under monitoring" — a few notches below variant of interest and variant of concern. The highly transmissible Omicron and Delta COVID-19 variants are under variants of concern.

The WHO defines a variant under monitoring as one "with genetic changes that are suspected to affect virus characteristics with some indication that it may pose a future risk, but evidence of phenotypic or epidemiological impact is currently unclear, requiring enhanced monitoring and repeat assessment pending new evidence."

If the WHO ever elevates IHU as a variant of concern, it will then be called "Pi," from the Greek alphabet letter after omicron.

According to a December non-peer-reviewed preprint study by the IHU researchers: “It is too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this IHU variant based on these 12 cases.” 

Mutation and transmissibility

According to the IHU study, the spike protein mutations N501Y and E484K are found in IHU. The N501Y mutation is also found in the alpha COVID-19 variant and causes the pathogen to bind more strongly to human cells.

The variant reportedly also has more mutations than the omicron variant with 46 mutations compared to omicron’s 37, making it more resistant to the vaccines being administered.

However, due to the lack of data and its small of cases, experts are saying further research and tracking are needed.

“Within France, less than one percent of the samples that were sequenced … are of this particular variant,” said WHO COVID-19 technical lead Dr. Maria Van KerkhoveI "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.”

IHU researchers have also dubbed it as "another example of the unpredictability of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants, and of their introduction in a given geographical area from abroad."

How is the Philippines handling it?

With the Omicron variant continuing to make its way into the country, Dr. Edsel Salvana of the Department of Health (DOH) - Technical Advisory Group said that IHU is being monitored — but not a threat as of the moment.

“It’s a variant that is being monitored but it is not yet as concerning as Omicron or Delta or even the other ones like yung Alpha, Beta, at Gamma,” Salvana said.

Salvana added that the health agency is focusing its energy on the ongoing Omicron and Delta variants "making havoc all over the world."

As of writing, the Philippines has recorded a total of 2,910,664 positive COVID-19 cases, with 77,369 active cases as Jan. 7. The country has also reported 43 Omicron cases, with Delta cases at 8,497.