A new COVID variant identified in a handful of European countries is raising concerns among some health professionals because there are changes to the coronavirus spike protein that have never been seen before.
The variant, known either as B.1.X or B.1.640, was first reported by the French paper Le Telegramme after it infected 24 people at a French school in the Brittany region last month. When the variant was discovered in France, the school at which the outbreak occurred was forced to close half of its classes, Le Telegramme reported.
Although the situation is now under control and no cases have been found in France since October 26, the French Regional Health Agency said, the variant remains under surveillance.
A handful of cases were also discovered in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Scotland and Italy, although the Delta variant and its descendants continue to be the most dominant strains.
Bar-Ilan University Prof. Cyrille Cohen, who is originally from France and regularly interviews and consults with French health officials, explained that the B.1.640 variant has some unprecedented mutations. One in particular has drawn attention: the spike protein, which is what allows the virus to cling to the human cell and start the infection process, has some deletions.
The question is whether this will make the virus more or less infectious.
The variant is believed to have emanated from Africa, a scenario Cohen said health experts are afraid of and that highlights the need for vaccine equality.
“This variant exemplifies that if you leave some of the world’s population without access to vaccines, then the virus will continue to multiply and it will lead to more variants,” Cohen said.
A Q4 Global Forecast report published last week by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) highlighted that while mostly developed countries have successfully vaccinated large swaths of their citizens, most developing countries have made only negligible progress.
The report specifically highlighted the failures of Africa’s vaccination drive, where as of late October only 6% of the population in African states is vaccinated against COVID.
“The cause of such low vaccination rates is well-known: Despite recent improvements, global production continues to lag behind demand, with developing countries facing long delays in accessing vaccines,” the EIU report said, adding that the World Health Organization’s COVAX program has only managed to ship some 400 million doses globally and that donations from richer countries have been sparse.
Moreover, even if vaccines were delivered, African countries would be challenged in rolling them out, the report said – mainly for logistical reasons.
“Not giving vaccines to these countries may seem OK in the short term,” Cohen said, “but in the long term, we might have new variants that are problematic that developed in unvaccinated countries.”
“I don’t want to frighten people," he said. "There are just a few cases of B.1.640 now and it could very well be that in a month we could all forget about this variant.
“But it is an example of what could happen if there isn't access to vaccines for everyone.”