How claims of a French variant grabbed global headlines

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If French Professor Didier Raoult hadn’t already shot to global fame for his claims that hydroxychloroquine could be used in the fight against Covid-19, his latest find – a “new” coronavirus variant emerging in southern France – might have gone unnoticed. Instead his latest findings, not yet peer-reviewed, took on a life of their own this week after being retweeted hundreds of times, including by a US scientist, sparking concern and sensationalist headlines that many experts say are unwarranted.

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

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

The discovery failed to make headlines, however, as the fast-spreading Omicron variant had just landed in France and was infecting people at lightning speed, fuelling a new record of 332,000 new cases in 24 hours on Wednesday. To date, the IHU variant has only been detected a dozen or so times although its emergence is widely believed to have preceded Omicron by a few weeks.

But just before New Year, on December 29, Raoult's team published a so-called preprint of their discovery on the online server medRxiv 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 warns that the studies it carries should “not be relied on to guide clinical practice […] and should not be reported in news media as established information”.

‘Breaking!

This is when the no-longer-new coronavirus variant took on a whole new life, as the news quickly started spreading across the world. Thailand Medical News, a website directed at Thai medical industry staff, was one of the first media outlets to sound the alarm, headlining with: “Breaking! Updates on new B.1.640.2 variant spreading in southern France. Number of cases growing and variant now detected in the United Kingdom as well!”. The website also claimed that 315 people in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, which includes Marseille, were on respirators.

Doctor Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, tweeted Raoult’s preprint to his more than 677,000 followers. The original tweet has since been deleted, but in the 11-post thread that followed – and still remains online – Feigl-Ding noted that the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region where IHU was discovered has “a steeper #COVID19 death climb than the rest of France”, although he added: “Not sure if this is #Omicron or if it’s the new variant (unclear), but still not good regardless even if Omicron.”

International media – including Forbes, Deutsche Welle and the Independent – followed suit with headlines on the supposedly “new” variant.

The media frenzy prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to weigh in on Wednesday, saying the IHU variant “has been on our radar” but that it is not overly concerned about its emergence.

‘Nonsense’

Epidemiologists and virologists also tried to stem the rising tide of concern.

One of them was Professor François Belloux, director at the University College London’s Genetics Institute. “In case anyone came across tweets by @DrEricDing or other 'variant fear mongers' who possibly disappointed by Omicron, are announcing the new variant from hell (B.1.640.2), please relax for now ...”, he tweeted, accompanying his claims with data and charts in an attempt to reassure the general public. He noted that the last detected IHU case was recorded on December 6 last year – and that it “does not explain a spike of cases in Southern France” and “has not sent hundreds of people in ICU in France”.

He ended by saying: “I won't link to any of the sources behind those outlandish claims, but feel free to Google ‘B.1.640.2’ if you wished to be exposed to a lot of nonsense.”

Tom Peacock, a virologist at the Imperial College of London, also addressed the uproar. “Lots of chat about B.1.640.2 in the last few days – just a few points to keep in mind: - B.1.640.2 actually predates Omicron – in all that time there are exactly ... 20 sequences (compared to the >120k Omis in less time) Def not one worth worrying about too much at the mo...”

In an emailed response to FRANCE 24 on Thursday, Peacock reiterated that IHU predates Omicron, describing it as: “really not something that is worth the public being at all worried about at the moment, particularly in the face of Omicron, which is a much, much bigger public health concern”.

Although Peacock said the Raoult team’s study “is an OK preprint and accurately describes 12 epidemiologically linked cases with the index case”, he said he believes part of the reason news of the “new” IHU variant took off was that some media linked IHU with the currently high ICU occupancy in southern France, which he said “definitely aren’t” linked.

He also said the fact that Raoult and his team named the variant may have added some fuel to the fire. Naming a variant tends to “generate media attention, which creates a strange environment where there is sudden media interest in a variant that clearly isn’t really going anywhere – as in this case”.

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