There's Another New COVID Variant Called 'IHU' — But Don't Panic Just Yet

Luckily, it doesn't look like IHU will be another Omicron or Delta situation.

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At this point, it's understandable if you want to throw your phone into the abyss every time you see a headline related to COVID-19. Between trying to keep up with constantly evolving public health guidelines, record-high cases nationwide, and now needing to worry about catching "flurona" (aka COVID and the flu at the same time), seeing news about yet another variant can test the sanity of even the most chill among us.

The latest variant making headlines is B.1.640.2, which has been nicknamed "IHU" after its discovery by researchers at the Méditerranée Infection University Hospital Institute (IHU) in Marseille, France. According to a study published in December that hasn't yet been peer-reviewed — i.e., hasn't yet been vetted and scrutinized by other health experts to confirm validity and accuracy — the first patient believed to be infected by the strain was fully vaccinated and had recently returned to southern France after traveling to Cameroon, in west-central Africa. (While you're here, check out the most up-to-date info on the CDC's isolation guidelines.)

Though the patient presented with "mild respiratory symptoms," genomic sequencing (aka the process used by scientists to analyze viral strains) determined that health experts were working with what appeared to be a new variant, which they dubbed IHU. The Hill reports that IHU has since been found in 12 people in the southern Alps. Thankfully, it seems there's little to worry about when it comes to this particular variant, says Chicago-based internal medicine physician Vivek Cherian, M.D. — a tiny beacon of hope after two years of seemingly endless bad news.

So far, Dr. Cherian hopes to assuage concerns by noting that he "wouldn't get too excited about this variant" just yet. Researchers are working diligently to determine how infectious it is and whether or not it poses a significant threat à la two of its predecessors, Delta and Omicron, which have gone on to become the two dominating strains of SARS-CoV-2, the original virus behind COVID-19. (Remember both the Mu and R.1 Variants, which both popped up and then petered out? Exactly.)

Researchers did determine that IHU has 46 mutations and 37 deletions in its genetic code, which reflect changes to the strain's ribonucleic acid (RNA) strands. Each coronavirus has approximately 26,000 to 32,000 bases or RNA "letters" in length, per NewScientist, and these individual mutations signify changes in the original virus' coding. And while that all sounds extremely scary, it's worth noting that all viruses are constantly changing and mutating from their original strains as long as there's community circulation, as William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, previously told Shape. In fact, that's also why your flu shot is slightly different every year, in order to account for the ever-evolving viral strains.

"Variants are expected — that's how they survive, they mutate so they can live on in hosts who become immune to initial forms of it," says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network. "Usually mutations make viruses less dangerous over time too, so hopefully that trend continues so the virus can become endemic."

"The fact that there are so many mutations is a possible concern, but it's important to note that mutations don't always translate into increased transmissibility and virulence," adds Dr. Cherian. "I'd cautiously say that we've been aware of this variant now for two months, and if the mutations truly did translate into something that was going to negatively affect Europe and the world (i.e. how quickly Omicron has spread), chances are, it would have already." (Read more: Why Are the New COVID-19 Strains Spreading More Quickly?)

Dr. Parikh agrees. "It's too soon to tell much of anything about this variant, whether or not our current vaccines and treatments will work, but so far it seems like it may not be as contagious as Omicron and Delta which is great news for all of us this variant may not spread," she says.

Apparently,the variant has been on the World Health Organization's radar since November, and it has not resulted in much spread at all during that time, as Abdi Mahmud, a COVID-19 incident manager for the WHO, told reporters this week, according to The New York Times. "That virus has had a lot of chances to pick up," he added.

Also worth noting is that IHU has technically been around longer than Omicron, which began circulating in late November after first being detected in South Africa. Omicron has now been detected in at least 128 countries, according to the New York Times, though Reuters reports that Delta still remains the dominant strain globally. Dr. Cherian adds that health officials worldwide "will continue monitoring it and will be prompt to inform the general public if there is a concern of note" when it comes to IHU. (Read more about the COVID-19 Omicron variant here.)

That said, the pandemic is far from over, and taking every precaution to prevent catching and spreading COVID still remains crucial, even if you're fully vaccinated. Keep wearing masks with two or more layers when around other people, washing your hands correctly, staying up-to-date on your COVID booster, flu shot, and other recommended protective measures, and hopefully the virus (and all its variants) will see itself out sooner rather than later.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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