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People wearing protective face masks walk in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris amid a COVID-19 outbreak in France on Jan. 5.GONZALO FUENTES/Reuters

The World Health Organization says that it is monitoring a coronavirus variant detected in a small number of patients in France, but that, for now, there is little reason to worry about its spread.

The B.1.640.2 variant was first identified in October and uploaded to GISAID, a database for disease variants, on Nov. 4. Only about 20 samples have been sequenced so far, experts said this week, and only one since early December.

Abdi Mahmud, a COVID incident manager with the WHO, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that the variant had been on the agency’s radar since November, but added that it did not appear to have spread widely over the past two months.

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“That virus has had a lot of chances to pick up,” he said.

By contrast, the Omicron variant, which was first uploaded to GISAID on Nov. 23, has more than 120,000 sequences in the database. (The vast majority of Omicron cases have not been sequenced.) It has been detected in at least 128 countries, according to the WHO, and is fuelling record-high case numbers in many parts of the world.

Concerns over the variant in France arose after researchers found that it contained 46 mutations that differed from the original version of the coronavirus. Omicron also has a high number of mutations, which researchers believe made it far more transmissible.

According to a research paper that was published on a preprint server in late December, but that has not been peer-reviewed, the B.1.640.2 variant was first detected in southeastern France in a vaccinated person who had recently travelled from Cameroon. Researchers found a total of 12 cases in the area and named the variant “IHU,” after the research institute in Marseille that helped identify it.

“It is too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this IHU variant based on these 12 cases,” researchers wrote.

Numerous coronavirus variants have emerged over the past two years, and the reasons that some spread widely while others do not are complex. For now, several independent researchers say there is little reason to be concerned about the IHU variant.

Tom Peacock, a virus expert at Imperial College in London, tweeted this week that, so far, “this virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialized.”

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