COVID-19: What do we know about the new French variant?

'Enough not to be worried,' says Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunology lab at Bar-Ilan University.

 COVID-19 (illustrative) (photo credit: TORANGE)
COVID-19 (illustrative)
(photo credit: TORANGE)

A new corona variant recently detected in France does not appear to be a cause of concern, according to Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunology lab at Bar-Ilan University.

The variant, named B.1.640.2, was first revealed in a pre-print study last week that has not yet been peer-reviewed. According to the study by researchers at the Méditerranée Infection Foundation in Marseille, the variant was detected in 12 individuals last month.

“I’m not so worried,” Cohen said. “We have seen variants like that in the past. This new one is very similar to another variant that was also discovered in France around two months ago, the B.1.640. At the time, there were about 30 people identified as infected with it, and it presented a similar number of mutations of the new one. However, nothing bad has happened because it was not as strong as Delta or as Omicron in terms of infectiousness.”

Viruses constantly mutate. While most mutations have no significant consequences, a cluster of mutations can engender a new variant, and the virus may create a different protein as a consequence. In the case of corona, the key protein to consider is the spike protein found on the surface of the virus that allows it to penetrate host cells and cause infections.

The new French variant presents 45 mutations, nine of which are on the spike protein. For perspective, Omicron has 50 mutations, with more than 35 of them on the spike protein.

A patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is treated in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, California, US, May 12, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON)A patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is treated in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, California, US, May 12, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON)

“When we look at the mutations of the new French variant, we are familiar with most of them from other variants,” Cohen said. “There are a few we did not know, but when considering a variant, we need to look at the broader picture. Unless it is able to compete with the prevalent ones, there is not too much to worry about.”

That this lineage of variants has not successfully spread in two months is reassuring, according to the expert, who said that there is still a lot to learn from it.

“The important piece of information in my opinion is that this variant keeps coming back,” he said. “Moreover, as it happened with other variants, it originated from Africa. We need to understand that many countries are not performing genetic sequencing as Western nations are, so we should be aware that there are places where variants are happening and we do not know.”

Cohen pointed out that this is especially true for areas with a high number of those not vaccinated or who are immuno-suppressed.

“This is why everyone needs access to the vaccine,” he said. “Another possibility that we should consider, and I think it is not examined enough, is that variants are happening in animals.”

Cohen emphasized that new variants emerge all the time.

“We need to keep monitoring the situation, but most of them just appear and disappear fast,” he said. “The truth is that more than this French variant, what concerns me is the possibility that Omicron itself mutates again, considering the high number of people getting infected, and then we will have to deal with an ‘Omicron plus.’”