New Delhi: Even as the world grapples with a highly mutated strain of coronavirus, called Omicron, which has led to a surge in infections, researchers in France have reported the emergence of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant.
The variant, currently designated B.1.640.2, was identified after an analysis of 12 Covid positive patients living in the same geographical area of southeastern France.
In a yet to be peer-reviewed research paper published on medRxiv, scientists from IHU Méditerranée Infection in France said the first patient identified to be infected with the variant had returned to France from a trip to Cameroon.
The researchers are calling it the IHU variant, although research groups are not authorised to name variants. Variants are designated names by the World Health Organization (WHO) if they are of concern.
The researchers found at least 46 mutations and 37 deletions in the new variant compared to the original viral strains. This resulted in 30 amino acid substitutions and 12 deletions.
“These data are another example of the unpredictability of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants, and of their introduction in a given geographical area from abroad,” the researchers wrote.
Every living organism is run by a predefined set of genes that ‘instruct’ cells on how to build proteins. Understanding the sequence of genes is thus like cracking the code to the organism and how it functions.
The genetic material of the coronavirus is ribonucleic acid (RNA) strands. Each virus has about 26,000 to 32,000 bases or RNA “letters” in its length.
These letters — A, C, U and G — stand for adenine, cytosine, uracil and guanine, nitrogen-containing biological molecules that are the fundamental units of the genetic code. How A, C, U and G are arranged in the genetic code determines what amino acids are expressed by the organism. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
When a virus multiplies inside the cells of a living organism, it creates copies of the RNA. However, the process it uses to make these copies is not perfect and often introduces tiny errors in the sequence of bases. These errors are called genetic mutations. A deletion is when one ‘letter’ gets missed, instead of being replaced.
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Easy to detect through RT-PCR tests
The researchers also pointed out that like the Omicron variant, the mutations on the spike protein of this variant make it easy to detect using RT-PCR tests. This means that the variant can be easily screened with certain RT-PCR tests, without the need for full genome sequencing, which can take a longer time.
Vinod Scaria — a researcher at CSIR-Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology, who has been tracking Covid variants and mutations — wrote in a Twitter post that given what is currently known about the variant so far, there is no need to panic.
A lot of discussion about B.1.640.2 reported from Southern France 🇫🇷 and a preprint on the variant https://t.co/jLvFGEviu5
This 🧵is to summarize what we know. 👇 pic.twitter.com/1iMIDbErEW
— Vinod Scaria (@vinodscaria) January 4, 2022
The variant has been on the WHO’s watchlist even before the emergence of Omicron, Scaria said, and its sequences have not grown rapidly.
B.1.640 — the parent lineage from which this new variant has emerged — was detected in November last year in Ghana and is being monitored since.
Some of the mutations on the spike protein of this variant are the same as those identified in past variants of concern, Scaria said. These include N501Y and E484K — both of which have been associated with the ability of the virus to escape the body’s natural or vaccine-induced antibody response.
Scaria also said the spread of the variant needs to be monitored over the next few weeks to understand its impact.
Also read: With Omicron, 2020 ‘crisis standards’ are back. And we’re burnt out — says hospital staff