What we know about the ‘new’ Covid variant detected in southern France

A Covid variant was that was sequenced in the southern French city of Marseille has been hitting the headlines - but is it actually dangerous? Or even new?

A health worker prepares to sequence Covid samples at the IHU in Marseille.
A health worker prepares to sequence Covid samples at the IHU in Marseille. Little is known about the new variant discovered there. (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP)

Is it new?

The variant – officially known as B.1.640.2 – was first identified in Marseille in November, and recorded as a new variant on December 9th.

That’s actually the same week as the first Omicron cases were recorded in France – although it’s likely that Omicron was present in France before it was formally identified.

What is it?

The Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire in Marseille – the former workplace of controversial Professor Didier Raoult – was where the sequencing (mapping out of the strain’s genetic composition) took place. 

It has been informally dubbed the IHU variant after the Institute, and internet users have joked that it is the ‘I Hate U’ variant.

A non-peer reviewed study from the institute identified 46 mutations in this variant compared to the original Covid-19 virus, 23 or which were located at the spike protein – a crucial spot when it comes to the virus’s ability to attack human cells. 

Where is it from?

Just because this new strain was discovered in France does not necessarily mean that this is where it first emerged – it could just be a sign that France has a relatively developed testing and sequencing infrastructure. 

The first detected case in France was in a traveller who had recently returned from the DRC. 11 other people, all linked to the traveller, were also discovered to have the new variant.

Since then the vast majority of cases so far have been detected in France, although dozens have also been detected in the DRC and the UK, as well as a handful elsewhere in Africa, North America, Europe and South Asia. 

The B.1.640.2 strain currently accounts for well under 1 percent of Covid cases in the country, amounting to hundreds of cases according to the country’s public health agency

How dangerous is it?

“It is too early to speculate on the virological, epidemiological or clinical characteristics of this variant,” wrote the authors of the study at IHU.

But the limited spread so far is an encouraging sign. The IHU variant accounts for less than one percent of cases in France, while the Omicron variant has gone on to become the dominant strain in France, overtaking Delta.

The World Health Organization has downplayed concerns over the variant. Abdi Mahamud, a WHO incident manager on Covid, told a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday that it “has been on our radar,” but noted that it hadn’t proved much of a threat. 

Santé Publique France said back in December that a “reinforced epidemiological study” was underway to “evaluate the characteristics of this variant and its impact on public health”. 

France remains in the grip of a huge wave of Covid cases, largely driven by the Omicron variant. On Tuesday the French government released figures showing a record 271,686 Covid cases in a 24 hour period. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation has argued that new variants are less likely to emerge in places where vaccination coverage is lowest – hence the need to vaccines to be distributed equally between developed and developing countries.

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How bad will France’s Covid-19 summer wave be and could there be new restrictions?

Daily Covid-19 cases in France topped 200,000 on Tuesday as infections rise sharply. Here is what we can expect for the seventh wave of the pandemic in the country.

How bad will France's Covid-19 summer wave be and could there be new restrictions?

France has seen a huge increase in the number of Covid-19 infections in recent days.

The country was reporting an average of 100,000 cases per day as of July 2nd but by Tuesday July 5th the daily case count had topped 200,000.

Hospital admissions and admissions into intensive care are also on the rise, but the number of Covid-related deaths has not risen. 

Here is what you can expect for the coming weeks:

Cases to continue rising – For the moment the number of cases is expected to continue growing sharply, with variants BA.4 and BA.5 currently representing over 75 percent of cases in France.

However, even though infections continue to rise sharply (around 60 percent up on last week), the rate of growth appears to be slowing in recent days, accoridng to French data scientist and founder of the Covid Tracker website Guillaume Rozier.

“This [current] stability in cases is an encouraging sign, because the number of cases had been increasing for the past month. There is usually about a three week lag between the peak in cases and the peak in deaths deaths. We still have to be cautious and wait for another week and a half,” said Rozier in one of his regular Twitter threads.

In contrast to the peak of infections during the fifth wave last winter, which saw over 500,000 cases reported a day, this wave is currently seeing an average of 100,000 cases per day, though the peak has not yet been reached. 

If you test positive while in France, here is a guide of what to do.

READ MORE: French public urged to wear face masks again on public transport

Likely peak in late July – The seventh wave may reach its peak by the end of July in France, estimated Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, the president of the Scientific Council, on June 30th. The wave is likely to continue being fuelled by Omicron sub-variants, BA.4 and notably BA.5.

Regarding the number of hospitalisations, Marc Lavielle, a professor and researcher with the French National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology explained that we are “in a fairly steady pattern of exponential growth,” meaning that the “number of hospital admissions doubles every two weeks or so.”

This represents a much slower pace than at the beginning of the epidemic, when the number doubled in only three days. However, Lavielle warned that without restrictive measures the increase could accelerate. Deaths are currently at about 40 per day, but it is important to note that the deaths usually lag infections by three weeks.

In comparison to the end of June in 2021, only 22,000 cases were detected per day, whereas this summer saw around 70,000 per day at the end of June. Nevertheless, this wave has so far seen a lower number of admissions into critical care than last summer’s wave that was fuelled by the more dangerous Delta variant.

The severity of this variant and wave – So far, symptoms associated with this current wave are “standard for Omicron,” while the duration of symptoms seems to last a bit longer. Currently there is no data showing variants BA.4 and BA.5 are more dangerous than other variants in Omicron family, though evidence shows they are spreading faster. Mortality is also not higher than other variants based on current data.

“The main symptoms associated with BA.5 are fairly standard for Omicron: fatigue, cough, fever and headache. However, the likelihood of experiencing loss of taste or smell is higher than with BA.2,” explained Yannick Simonin, virologist and researcher at the University of Montpellier. He added that infected people also seem to be experiencing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea at higher rates.

The duration of symptoms for BA.5 appears to be closer to seven days, rather than four days, which was common for previous Omicron sub-variants. 

Ultimately, there is “currently no field data showing this sub-variant is more lethal than others in the Omicron family.” 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Who qualifies for a second Covid vaccine booster in France?

How concerned should we be?

Based on observations from countries who have already experienced a BA.5 wave, like Portugal and South Africa, so far this wave has not caused a serious over-saturation of hospitals. H

However, there has still been significant increases in hospitalisations due to large number of cases. Therefore, experts recommend staying vigilant by wearing masks in enclosed spaces and crowded areas, as well as getting a second booster if eligible. So far, only 31 percent of over 80s have received their second booster shot. 

No return of health pass in metropolitan France.?

The president of the National Assembly announced over the weekend that France’s Covid-19 health pass, rolled out in the summer of 2021 to allow vaccinated individuals entry to bars and restaurants or cinemas, will not be renewed on August 1st.

Lawmakers are set to go over the bill concerning the country’s health security on Monday, July 11th, which is likely to extend some “essential provisions to face the continuation of the Covid-19 epidemic,” according to government spokesperson Olivier Véran.

Thus, there is a possibility that the health pass will be reinstated for border crossings, which would affect France’s overseas territories and Corsica. However, officials have clarified that the health pass will not be renewed in metropolitan France, despite the seventh wave.