Scientists in South Africa have discovered a novel coronavirus variation with numerous mutations, but they have yet to determine if it is more infectious or capable of overcoming vaccination or past infection-induced immunity.
According to research that has yet to be peer-reviewed, the new variety, known as C.1.2, was initially 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”.
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 fastest and fittest variant the world has encountered, and it is upending assumptions about COVID-19 even as nations loosen restrictions and reopen their economies.
Based on its mutation pattern, Lessells believes C.1.2 has greater immune evasion capabilities than Delta, and that the findings have been reported to the WHO.
The South African health department’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the study.
The COVID-19 immunization campaign in South Africa has gotten off to a sluggish start, with just around 14% of the adult population completely vaccinated thus far.