New COVID variant found in France: cause for panic or not yet?

A new variant identified in a handful of European countries is raising concern among some healthcare professionals because there are changes in the coronavirus spike protein that have never been seen before.

The variant, known as B.1.X or B.1.640, was first reported by the French newspaper The telegram, after it infected 24 people at a French school in the Brittany region in October. When the variant was discovered in France, the school where the outbreak occurred was forced to close 50% 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.

Some cases were also discovered in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Scotland and Italy, although the Delta variant and its descendants remain the most dominant strains.

Professor Cyrille Cohen from the University of Bar-Ilan, 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 attracted attention: the spike protein, which is what allows the virus to adhere to the human cell and start the infection process, has some deletions.

The question is whether this will make the virus more infectious or less effective.

This undated transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the US Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells grown in the laboratory. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus partition (Credit: NIAID-RML / FILE PHOTO / HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The variant is believed to have emanated from Africa, a scenario that Cohen said health experts fear and that highlights the need for vaccine equality.

“This variant exemplifies that if you leave part of the world’s population without access to vaccines, then the virus will continue to multiply and lead to more variants,” Cohen said.

A fourth quarter Global Forecast report published last week by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) highlighted that, while most developed countries have successfully vaccinated large swaths of their citizens, most developing countries have only made negligible progress.

The report specifically highlighted the failures of Africa’s vaccination campaign, where at the end of 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, and developing countries face long delays in accessing vaccines,” the report said. from the EIU, adding that the World Health Organization’s COVAX program has only managed to ship some 400 million doses globally and donations from wealthier countries have been meager.

Furthermore, even if the vaccines were delivered, African countries would be challenged to implement them, according to the report, mainly for logistical reasons.

“Not giving vaccines to these countries may seem right in the short term,” Cohen said, “but in the long term, we could have new variants that are problematic that were developed in unvaccinated countries.”

He added: “I don’t want to scare people. Now there are only a few cases of B.1.640 and it is quite possible that in a month we can all forget about this variant.

“But it is an example of what could happen if there was no access to vaccines for everyone.”

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