Scientists in South Africa have discovered a new coronavirus variation with several mutations, but they have yet to determine if it is more contagious or capable of overcoming immunity afforded by vaccines or earlier infection.
According to research that has yet to be peer-reviewed, the new variety, known as C.1.2, was discovered in May and has since spread to most South African provinces as well as seven other nations in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Oceania.
It contains many mutations associated in other variants with increased transmissibility and reduced sensitivity to neutralising antibodies, but they occur in a different mix and scientists are not yet sure how they affect the behaviour of the virus. Laboratory tests are underway to establish how well the variant is neutralised by antibodies.
South Africa was the first country to detect the Beta variant, one of only four labelled “of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Beta is believed to spread more easily than the original version of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and there is evidence vaccines work less well against it, leading some countries to restrict travel to and from South Africa.
PANDEMIC ‘FAR FROM OVER’
Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist and one of the authors of the research on C.1.2, said its emergence tells us “this pandemic is far from over and that this virus is still exploring ways to potentially get better at infecting us”.
People queue outside a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination centre as the country opens vaccinations for everyone 18 years old and above in Cape Town, South Africa, August 20, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo
He said people should not be overly alarmed at this stage and that variants with more mutations were bound to emerge further into the pandemic.
Genomic sequencing data from South Africa show the C.1.2 variant was still nowhere near displacing the dominant Delta variant in July, the latest month for which a large number of samples was available.
In July C.1.2 accounted for 3% of samples versus 1% in June, whereas Delta accounted for 67% in June and 89% in July.
Delta is the world’s quickest and fittest variety, and it is upending COVID-19 assumptions even as nations ease restrictions and reopen their markets.
According to Lessells, based on the pattern of mutations, C.1.2 may have stronger immune evasion properties than Delta, and the findings have been reported to the WHO.
The South African health department’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the study.
South Africa’s COVID-19 immunisation campaign has been reluctant to get off to a good start, with only about 14 percent of the adult population fully vaccinated so far.