'Twice as fast': Alarm as new coronavirus strain detected

·5-min read

South African scientists say they have identified a new coronavirus variant that could be more transmissible than anything previously detected.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases released a new preprint study reporting the new variant of Covid-19, known as C.1.2 has “mutated substantially” from C.1, one of the strains which dominated the Covid infections in the first wave in South Africa.

The C.1.2 variant which first emerged in South Africa in May 2021, has also been found in England, China, New Zealand, Portugal and Switzerland.

A Covid-19 test.
Research suggests the new Covid variant has “mutated substantially" from past strains. Source: Getty

The study showed an increase in the number of C.1.2 genomes found in South Africa, jumping from 0.2 per cent in May to 2 per cent in July. This is a similar rate to the increases in mutation seen in Beta and Delta strains in South Africa during early detection.

"C.1.2 is highly mutated beyond C.1 and all other VOCs (Variants of Concern) and VOIs (Variants of Interest) globally with between 44-59 mutations away from the original Wuhan Hu-1 virus," the study wrote.

"We are currently assessing the impact of this variant on antibody neutralisation following SARS-CoV-2 infection, or vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa."

The study also found that the C.1.2 lineage has a mutation rate of about 41.8 mutations per year, which is nearly twice as fast as the current global mutation rate of the other variants.

Scientists are unsure if the" constellations of mutations" C. 1.2 variant will make it more dangerous but say it's important to "highlight this lineage", as it has been seen in other variants with increased transmissibility.

Potential to spread faster

Epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding said research indicated potential problems for vaccines. 

“I have just gotten direct confirmation from my WHO colleagues that they are investigating and following up on the new C12 variant from South Africa,” he tweeted.

“Also note that C12 is already detected in England, Switzerland, Portugal, Mauritius, China, and New Zealand.”

“What does that mean? It means that C12 variant has somehow mutated so fast and far that it is now the furthest mutated variant found to date. It has mutated the greatest genetic distance from the original Wuhan 1.0 strain – and implies potential troubles for 1.0 vaccines,’’ he said.

“It gets worse with C12. It has a 1.7x to 1.8x faster mutation rate than the average of all other variants. The authors note this coincides with the emergence pattern of other really bad VOC variants.

“Consider this a hurricane warning on the next potential variant."

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He added that there were concerns it could be “more infectious and evade vaccines”, quashing ideas that vaccines were to blame for the mutations in variants. 

"For those claiming vaccines are a major cause of these super bad variants - they are dead wrong.," he wrote.

"Unfettered spread of the coronavirus is what gives the virus more chances to practice in our bodies and learn to adapt against a body with no ready vaxxed immunity."

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However, specialist scientists at the National Institute for Communicable Disease say there is no reason to believe the C.1.2 variant will disrupt the efficacy of the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines being used in South Africa, saying it remains a "low minority variant".

“Those experiments are ongoing and we can’t say definitively that the variant is more or less sensitive at this point," Professor Penny Moore of the NICD said at a press conference on Thursday.

"Despite the emergence of such variants, all the vaccines maintain efficacy against severe disease and death. 

"We have considerable confidence that the vaccines rolled out here will protect against severe disease and death.”

What are the variants of concern and variants of infection?

The study said there are currently four variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta and four variants of interest: Eta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda that are circulating globally.

"Of these, Alpha, Beta and Delta have had the most impact globally in terms of transmission and immune evasion, with Delta rapidly displacing other variants to predominate globally, including in South Africa."

According to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, a variant of interest is one that is "suspected" to either be more contagious than the initial strain and presents concerning mutations. 

A variant of concern for which there is evidence it being easily transmitted, is one affecting the severity of disease or evading tests, vaccines or treatments.

A variant of interest can be elevated to a variant of concern by health officials if more evidence emerges that it can create a more serious disease than the mutation.

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