What is the new C.1.2 COVID-19 variant? Here’s what we know so far

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South African researchers are raising concern over the spread of a new COVID-19 variant riddled with a number of mutations, including some associated with increased transmissibility and a resistance to antibodies against the disease.

The variant, named C.1.2, was first detected in May and has spread to a majority of South Africa’s provinces as well as seven other countries, including China, Portugal and the U.K.

In a recent study published by researchers at the Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa, the variant was described as “concerning” due to the number of mutations it possessed. The study is yet to be peer reviewed.

A news release from South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases pointed to the C.1.2 lineage as having mutations seen in other COVID-19 variants of interest or concern, but “also other mutations which are novel.”

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“While the C.1.2 lineage shares a few common mutations with the Beta and Delta variants, the new lineage has a number of additional mutations,” read the release.

“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, that vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalization and death.”

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Despite the scientists having observed such mutations in the variant, they have not yet concluded whether it actually is more contagious or is able to conquer the immunity provided by vaccines or previous infection.

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South Africa had been the first country to detect the Beta COVID-19 variant, one of the four variants of concern labelled by the World Health Organization.

Characteristics associated with Beta include increased transmissibility, a higher risk of severe disease from catching the coronavirus as well as evidence of antibody neutralization, according to the WHO.

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Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said it’s too early to tell if C.1.2 could pose as much of a threat as that of Delta — an extremely transmissible variant which has driven new waves of the pandemic in several countries across the world, including Canada.

“The fact of the matter is, is that this is all [preliminary] stuff and there’s a lot of speculation about what these mutations mean,” said Evans.

“I think probably the most impressive thing is that, you know, where it’s been described in places, it is not able to outcompete Delta.”

Genomic sequencing data from South Africa places the spread of C.1.2 nowhere near that of the dominant Delta as of July. During that month, C.1.2 accounted for three per cent of COVID-19 testing samples in comparison to Delta, which account for 89 per cent in South Africa.

The variant has also not been able to outcompete the other dominant variants of COVID-19 in the countries it has spread to so far.

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Impact of the Delta variant

Richard Lessells, one of the authors of the South African report on C.1.2, told Reuters that the variant’s emergence tells them the “pandemic is far from over and that this virus is still exploring ways to potentially get better at infecting us.”

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And while he pointed to C.1.2 as having more immune evasion properties than Delta in particular, he said that people should not be overly alarmed by its discovery, as more mutated variants were bound to emerge late in the pandemic.

The findings from the South African team have since been flagged to the World Health Organization (WHO).

On Monday, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead addressed the research and news of C.1.2 in several statements online.

In a thread posted to Twitter, the WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove pointed to there being just about 100 sequences of the variant having been identified since it was first reported by South Africa in May.

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“At this time, C.1.2 does not appear to be [upwards] in circulation, but we need more sequencing to be conducted & shared globally,” wrote Van Kerkhove.

She pointed to Delta as still appearing to be the more dominant variant based on available sequences.

Evans said he’s going to be skeptical of the concern over C.1.2 unless he sees more compelling data over the next couple of months from South Africa or anywhere else the variant has spread to.

“I think when it comes to C.1.2, there’s a lot of speculation saying, ‘wow, you know some of these mutations we haven’t seen a lot of, maybe they’re going to represent immune escape or something,’ but it hasn’t been borne out,” he said.

“I think Delta is going to outcompete it and it’ll probably die off. That’s my speculation,” said Evans.

with files from Reuters

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