By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
Over the past two years, our world has been increasingly disrupted by emerging coronavirus variants. These variants have caused devastating effects to people’s physical and mental health, healthcare logistics, education, travel, economics, and politics.
A new coronavirus variant emerged in late 2021. This variant is called “IHU” by researchers after the university hospital research center where it was first identified – the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire in Marseille, France.
However, the IHU variant has not spread beyond 12 people as of early January 2022. Called the “I hate you” variant on some social media platforms, it is now registered as B.1.640.2. The world now waits to see if it will fade away or spread.
The IHU variant has over 46 mutations. It was first seen in a traveler who recently returned to France from Cameroon in central Africa, and 11 people linked to that traveler were infected. But so far, IHU seems largely restricted to France.
Why the Coronavirus Is Able to Develop Variants
The coronavirus has significant instability in its nucleotide sequences, especially those that dictate the amino acid structure of surface (“spike”) proteins. Spike proteins play a critical role in virus attachment and entry for intracellular replication, the antigen which stimulates immune responses. The discovery of a new, highly mutated variant like IHU, however, does not mean it will become as lethal as previous ones.
Omicron has over 30 mutations in its spike protein region, which gives it the potential to slip past the body’s immune protection as the result of vaccinations or prior infection. Hopefully, COVID-19 will eventually “max out” in its ability to make huge evolutionary jumps and infection with omicron will rep up human immunity against future variants.
A good analogy is like a wildfire ripping through a forest after a drought. After omicron, for example, the landscape is not as dry as before but hopefully it will be wet enough to limit the rapid spread of future fires.
Related link: From Delta to Omicron: How Coronavirus Variants Behave
The Role of Vaccines and Antibodies in Fighting Illness
Vaccines often do well in protecting people against serious illness, but do not always prevent mild infection. Omicron currently does not appear to be as deadly as some earlier variants. It is possible that persons who survive omicron may have a natural immunity against other currently circulating COVID-19 variants – and hopefully against future emerging variants of concern.
The human immune system generally gets better and better at recognizing and fighting infection of diseases such as the flu and coronavirus by creating multi-layer defenses. Memory B-cells, part of the body’s immune system, can live for years within bone marrow and remain ready to produce more specific antibodies when necessary.
These memory cells are initially trained in germinal centers – “immune system boot camps” – learning how to make copies of previously successful antibodies in addition to more diverse and stronger ones. Helper T-cells act as drill sergeants in these training camps, driving the production of more effective antibodies that may work against future mutations of a virus.
With influenza, a new vaccine is prepared each year via antigenic stimulation from “sentinel” cases and the best guess of which variant might do the most damage during the upcoming flu season. Although the flu now kills tens of thousands of Americans every year, many lives have been saved via vaccination, and U.S. citizens now simply live with the annual rite of passage of influenza mutation. Until scientists learn more about the virological, epidemiological, and clinical significance of omicron and IHU, current data will continue to show the instability and unpredictability of SARS-CoV-2 variants.
The Flu Pandemic and How It Fostered Vaccine Development
Prior to COVID-19, the most severe pandemic was caused by an H1N1 influenza virus, often called the “Spanish flu” although there is not universal consensus where the virus originated. The flu pandemic lasted from 1918-1920 and about 500 million people (one-third of the world’s population at the time) were infected. The estimated number of deaths were at least 50 million people worldwide and about 675,000 in the U.S.
Influenza variants are given names – such as H1N1, H1N2 and H3N2 – based on the type of H or N antigens they express. After the flu pandemic, the development of annual flu vaccines rapidly followed to help modern medicine to cope with these variants.
The effectiveness of these flu vaccines are remarkable, because influenza virus types have nucleotide sections that regularly undergo “drift” and “shift.” This ability to change enables those flu viruses to evade extant (surviving) natural and/or vaccine-induced immunity.
WHO Using Greek Names for Their ‘Variants of Concern’
After considerable deliberation, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it would name future coronavirus “Variants of Concern,” using letters from the Greek alphabet (such as beta, delta, lambda and omicron). This method of naming COVID-19 variants distinguishes them from the original COVID-19 and variants that are not as much of a health concern. By not naming variants by the location of their initial discovery, the WHO hoped to avoid stigmas and discrimination via the use of names such as “Chinese virus,” “South African virus,” “Brazilian variant,” and “Indian variant.”
New coronavirus variants are detected regularly, but most of them fizzle out quickly. Others persist quietly but do not spread widely. Only a few coronavirus variants proliferate long enough to ring enough alarm bells and become “Variants of Concern.”
Naming Future Coronavirus Variants
So how will future variants be named if there are eventually more mutations than letters in the Greek alphabet? Future variant naming will probably be like the naming of hurricanes during an active season. When meteorologists exhaust a list of English names for hurricanes, they will move to the Greek alphabet, using names similar to this PrepScholar chart:
|Greek Letter Name||English Equivalent (Modern approximate)|
|Upsilon (Eepsilon)||I (ee)|
Pandemics Eventually Come to An End, But Will the Coronavirus?
The good news is that all pandemics that appeared in the past have eventually ended. But many researchers are now thinking that COVID-19 may never go away completely. Low-income countries with shorter supplies of vaccines and treatments will undoubtedly struggle more than developed countries that can more easily transition to an “endemic” state.