How allegations of a French variant made headlines around the world

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While French professor Didier Raoult hadn’t already gained worldwide fame for his claims that hydroxychloroquine could be used in the fight against Covid-19, his latest discovery – a “new” variant of the coronavirus emerging in southern France – might have gone unnoticed. the latest findings, yet to be peer-reviewed, took a life of their own this week after being retweeted hundreds of times, including by an American scientist, sparking concerns and sensational headlines that many experts believe are unwarranted.

It all started in November last year, when a new variant was identified and uploaded under the name B.1.640.2 on the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) platform, which promotes data sharing on influenza and the coronavirus responsible for Covid. -19.

A few weeks later, on December 9, Raoult and his team from the Marseille University Hospital (IHU) in the south of France tweeted that they had detected the new variant in someone who had traveled from Cameroon and that 11 people who had been in contact with this person had also been infected. .IHU announced that it had registered the variant on GISAID and gave it the name of the institution that discovered it: IHU.

A new COVID-19 variant has been detected at the IHU Méditerranée Infection resulting from patients of Forcalquier. It was named the IHU variant and deposited on GISAID under the name B.1.640.2. pic.twitter.com/Rh3klIxy0w

– IHU Méditerranée Infection (@IHU_Marseille) December 9, 2021 The discovery did not make the headlines, however, as the fast-spreading variant Omicron had just landed in France and was infecting people at lightning speed, fueling a new record of 332,000 new cases in 24 hours on Wednesday. To date, the IHU variant has only been detected about ten times, although its emergence is widely believed to have preceded Omicron by a few weeks.

But just before New Years Eve, on December 29, Raoult’s team posted a so-called preprint of their discovery on the medRxiv online server under the title “Emergence in Southern France of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant. […]”. A preprint is a study that has not yet been certified through peer review, and medRxiv cautions that the studies it performs should “not be used to guide clinical practice.” […] and should not be reported in the media as established news ”.

‘Rupture!It was then that the variant of the coronavirus, which is no longer new, took on a whole new life, as the news quickly began to spread around the world. Thailand Medical News, a website for personnel in the Thai medical industry, was one of the first media to sound the alarm bells, capturing with: “Breaking! Updates on the spread of the new variant B.1.640.2 in the south of France. Growing and varying number of cases now detected in UK too! The website also claimed that 315 people in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, including Marseille, were on ventilators.

Doctor Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior researcher at the Federation of American Scientists, tweeted Raoult’s pre-publication to his more than 677,000 subscribers. The original tweet has since been deleted, but in the 11-post discussion thread that followed – and still remains online Ding noted that the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region where the IHU was discovered has “a rise of death # COVID19 steeper than the rest of France “, although he added:” I don’t know if it’s #Omicronor if it’s the new variant (not clear), but still not good , although Omicron.

10) the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region also has a steeper rise in death # COVID19 than the rest of 🇫🇷. Not sure if this is #Omicron or if this is the new variant (unclear), but still not good even though Omicron. https://t.co/XLiTXZdwzE

– Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) January 3, 2022 International media – including Forbes, Deutsche Welle and The Independent – followed the lawsuit with headlines about the alleged “new” variant.

The media frenzy prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to intervene on Wednesday, saying the IHU variant “was on our radar” but not too concerned about its emergence.

‘Nonsense’ Epidemiologists and virologists have also tried to stem the growing tide of concern.

One of them was Professor François Belloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London. “In case anyone stumbles upon any tweets from @DrEricDing or other ‘fear-mongering variants’ that may be disappointed with Omicron, the New Hell Variant (B.1.640.2) announces, relax for the ‘instant … “he tweeted, accompanying his claim with data and graphs in an attempt to reassure the general public. He noted that the last case detected in IHU was recorded on December 6 of l ‘last year – and that it “does not explain a peak in cases in the south of France” and “did not send hundreds of people to intensive care in France”.

In case anyone stumbles upon any tweets from @DrEricDing or other “variant fear vendors” who might be disappointed with Omicron, announce the New Hell Variant (B.1.640.2), please. relax for now … 1 /

– Prof François Balloux (@BallouxFrancois) January 3, 2022 He ended by saying: exposed to a lot of nonsense.

I won’t link to any of the sources behind these outlandish claims, but feel free to google “B.1.640.2” if you want to be exposed to a lot of nonsense.

Thanks @RufusSG and @vincentglad for bringing it to my attention.

– Professor François Balloux (@BallouxFrancois) January 3, 2022 Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, also addressed the outcry. keep in mind: – B.1.640.2 actually predates Omicron – all this time there are exactly … 20 sequences (compared to> 120k Omitted in less time) Def is not worth the worth worrying too much right now. . “

In case anyone stumbles upon any tweets from @DrEricDing or other “variant fear vendors” who might be disappointed with Omicron, announce the New Hell Variant (B.1.640.2), please. relax for now … 1 /

– Prof François Balloux (@BallouxFrancois) January 3, 2022 In an emailed response to AXADLETM on Thursday, Peacock reiterated that the IHU predates Omicron, describing it as: “Really not something the public deserves. ‘worried at all at the moment, especially with Omicron, which is a much, much bigger public health problem.

Although Peacock said that Raoult’s team study “is an OK draft and accurately describes 12 cases epidemiologically linked to the index case,” he said he believed part of the reason why the news of the “new” variant of the IHU took off was that some media linked the IHU to the currently high occupancy of intensive care in southern France, which it said “is definitely not” linked.

He also said that the fact that Raoult and his team named the variant may have added fuel to the fire. go anywhere – like in this case ”.

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