There has been a lot of buzz this past week over a new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa that appears to be more highly mutated than any other variant flagged by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a variant of interest or concern, but still comprises just a small share of the country’s Covid-19 cases and has not been conclusively investigated for how its mutations impact the behavior of the virus.

A shot of the vaccine is administered.

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The evolution of this new variant, named C.1.2., was detailed in a preprint study published earlier this month by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform. 

Evolved from C.1., one of the coronavirus lineages that dominated during the first wave of infections in South Africa in mid-May of last year, C.1.2. was first identified in the South African provinces of Mpumalanga and Gauteng in May 2021.

It has since spread to most provinces in South Africa, as well as a handful of other countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania, according to the research, which is still awaiting peer review. 

The study’s authors said they are concerned about the variant because of how quickly it has mutated: it is between 44 and 59 mutations away from the original virus detected in Wuhan, making it more mutated than any other WHO-identified Variant of Concern of Variant of Interest. 

It also contains many mutations which have been associated with increased transmissibility and a heightened ability to evade antibodies in other variants, the scientists said, though they occur in different mixes and their impacts on the virus are not yet fully known. 

Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist who is one of the study’s authors, told Reuters that C.1.2. may have more immune evasion properties than the super-prevalent delta variant, based on its pattern of mutations, but the new variant is still very much under review. 

Beyond its transmission and response to vaccines remaining unknown, Lessells warned that people shouldn’t be overly concerned about C.1.2. yet as it was expected that variants with more mutations would emerge later in the pandemic. Furthermore, C.1.2. still makes up a very small—but consistently growing—portion of all of South Africa’s cases. It accounted for just 1% of samples in June and 3% in July, versus 67% of samples in June and 89% in July for the delta variant. 

Crucial Quote 

Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, said the variant has only been detected in about 100 of samples sequenced, “a very low number,” he stressed at a conference on Monday. “It’s still a very small percentage, but again we are really keeping a good eye on that. It has all the signatures of immune escape.” 

Key Background 

Changes to the virus have led to new waves in infections through the pandemic. For example, the U.S. is in the midst of a massive surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths due to the more infectious delta variant. Research suggests this variant has more than double the risk of hospitalization of the U.K.’s alpha variant, and it has also taken a toll on vaccine efficacy in terms of preventing infection, though the jabs still largely prevent severe illness. Lambda, first identified in Peru but now spreading through South Africa, is another variant causing concern following research suggesting some of its mutations may able to resist neutralization by vaccine-induced antibodies. It is not clear whether Lambda is more dangerous than the delta variant. 

Tangent

The World Health Organization has four variants identified as variants of concern and four variants identified as variants of interest (this label is given when they are confirmed as being more severe or transmissible). C.1.2. currently qualifies as neither. However, another variant believed to have originated from South Africa has qualified as a variant of concern. Beta concerned scientists and health officials because of its quick spread through South Africa and because of evidence some vaccines were less powerful against the variant. 

“​​Delta Variant More Than Doubles Risk Of Covid Hospitalization, U.K. Study Finds” (Forbes)

“South African Scientists Say New Variant May Have ‘Increased Transmissibility’” (Bloomberg)

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