A new Covid variant that mutates twice as fast as the others, has been discovered in South Africa.
On Monday, the National Institue of Communicable Diseases of South Africa (NCID) announced that a new variant called ‘C.1.2’ had been identified and that it was spreading across other nations.
The new variant which was first discovered last May in two South African provinces, Gauteng and Mpumalanga, is said to be a highly mutant coronavirus and has already been found in all nine of the country’s southern provinces, although at a relatively low rate.
The ‘C.1.2’, has also been found in nations such as Mauritius, New Zealand, Portugal and Switzerland and shares some mutants with other variants, for example, the ‘Delta’ strain that originated in India and the ‘Beta’ variant that appeared in South Africa last year.
Despite its low rate across the population, some of the unique properties that it has, have drawn the attention of scientists.
So should we be concerned about the new ‘C.1.2’ variant? Well according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the answer is no not yet. This is because, so far the new virus has not fulfilled the WHO criteria to be eligible as a “variant of interest or concern”.
“Variants of interest are those shown to cause community transmission in multiple clusters, and which have been detected in multiple countries, but have not yet necessarily proven to be more virulent or transmissible.
“Variants of concern, such as Delta, are those that show increased transmissibility, virulence or change in clinical disease, and a decreased effectiveness of public health and social measures.”
The National Institute of Disease is however continuing to keep an eye on the frequency of the variant and examine how it behaves.
Dr Megan Steain, a virologist and lecturer in immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Sydney’s Central Clinical School, said that the reason we have been alerted to the new ‘C.1.2’ strain is because of the particular mutations it contains.
“It contains quite a few key mutations that we see in other variants that have gone on to become variants of interest or concern. Any time we see those particular mutations come up, we’d like to keep an eye on the variant to see what it’s going to do. These mutations may affect things like whether it evades the immune response, or transmits faster.
“It will take some time for scientists to do the laboratory tests to see whether the virus is in fact fitter,” she said.
“While we can say that it has a few key mutations that have led to other variants being more infectious, often what we find is the mutations work in synergy together which can overall lead to a fitter virus, potentially, or a weaker virus.”
“All these studies in the lab take quite a while. There is a lot of work to be done.”
There is of course a chance that this Covid-19 variant may disappear, as coronaviruses emerge all of the time and can be very fragile, so, therefore, disappear before they can become a real problem.
“C.1.2 would have to be pretty good, pretty fit, and pretty fast to outcompete Delta at this stage,” Dr Steain claimed “I think we’re still very much at a point where this could die out, the prevalence is really low.
“We saw this with the Beta variant, and other variants of concern, where it looked like there could be a problem, they even had areas where they were transmitted and spread quite well. But then they haven’t really taken hold over time, and were overtaken by other variants of concern that are able to transmit faster. And so they just essentially die out.
“That could easily still happen with C.1.2.”
In regards to the current vaccinations being effective against the new variant Dr Steain said that there was no need to panic, “We can take an educated guess based on some of the mutations that it has, in that it’s similar to what we’ve seen in other variants like beta, as well as Delta.
“So we think, perhaps, the serum won’t neutralise as well as it would against an ancestral strain. But until we actually do those experiments it’s speculative really. We’ve got to bear in mind that the vaccine so far looks like it’s holding up really, really well in terms of preventing severe infection and hospitalisations and deaths from variants. They’re really good at preventing that.
“It’s important, however, to keep an eye on the other variants that are out there and just watch and see how they go.”
South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases stated “We are being cautious about the implications, while we gather more data to understand viruses of this lineage.”
“Based on our understanding of the mutations in this variant, we suspect that it might be able to partially evade the immune response, but despite this, the vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death.”