(NEXSTAR) — The newest COVID variant isn’t exactly new, according to officials with the World Health Organization.
In recent days, reports have surfaced of at least a dozen people infected with yet another SARS-CoV-2 variant — B.1.640.2 — in Southern France, although the WHO says they’ve been monitoring the B.1.640 variant (of which there are two subclasses, B.1.640.1 and B.1.640.2, according to a WHO official) since November.
The WHO does not currently consider B.1.640 to be a variant of concern (VOC) or a variant of interest (VOI). Rather, B.1.640 is designated as a variant under monitoring (VUM), meaning that it has potential to pose a future risk, but more monitoring, evidence and studies are needed.
The B.1.640.2 variant, meanwhile, has been detected in at least 12 people living in “the same geographical area of southeastern France” according to a study from researchers with the Méditerranée Infection University Hospital Institute (IHU).
The authors of the study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, also said the variant — which they’ve named the IHU variant after their medical institute — is believed to have originated in Cameroon and brought back to France by a traveler.
It is unclear where else B.1.640.2 has been detected.
During a United Nations briefing in Geneva this week, Dr. Abdi Mahamud of the WHO appeared to suggest that B.1.640 was not of any immediate concern to the general public.
“Yes, we are monitoring, and we are aware [of] it,” Mahamud said in response to a question from the press. “But right now, that virus had a lot of chances to pick up.”
Although this variant has not yet demonstrated the criteria for a VOC or VOI by the WHO standards, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily remain that way. As noted by WHO officials, “the impacts of these [VUM] variants may fast evolve.” The omicron variant, for instance, was considered a VUM on Nov. 24 before being upgraded to a VOC on Nov. 26.
If B.1.640 were to be recategorized as a VOC or VOI in the future, the WHO will assign an official label, or name, for the variant.
As of Wednesday, B.1.640 is currently listed as a VUM by the WHO, along with B.1.1.318 and C.1.2. Variants of interest (VOIs) currently include lambda and mu, while variants of concern (VOCs) include Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron variants.