Scientists in South Africa say they have identified a new coronavirus variant that has a concerning number of mutations.
The so-called C.1.2. variant was first identified in May in the South African provinces of Mpumalanga and Gauteng, where Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, are situated, the scientists said in a research paper. By August 13, it had been found in six of South Africa’s nine provinces as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritius, Portugal, New Zealand, and Switzerland.
The mutations on the virus “are associated with increased transmissibility” and an increased ability to evade antibodies, the scientists said. “It is important to highlight this lineage given its concerning constellation of mutations.”
Changes in the virus have driven successive waves of the coronavirus with the delta variant, first found in India, now pushing up infection rates across the world. Mutations are first classified as variants of interest by the World Health Organization. Once they are identified as being more severe or transmissible, they have termed variants of concern.
C.1.2. evolved from C.1., a lineage of the virus that dominated infections in the first wave of the virus in South Africa in mid-2020. It has between 44 and 59 mutations from the original virus detected in Wuhan in China.
The research was published by South African groups including the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, known as Krisp, and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
In May, the variant accounted for 0.2% of the genomes sequenced in the country. That rose to 1.6% in June and 2% in July.
“We are currently assessing the impact of this variant on antibody neutralization” in both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, the scientists said.
The results are expected within a week, Tulio de Oliveira, the director of Krisp, said at an immunology conference on Monday.
“It has only been detected in around 100 genomes, a very low number,” he said. “It’s still a very small percentage, but again we are really keeping a good eye on that. It has all of the signatures of immune escape.”
South African scientists also discovered the beta variant in 2020. They have stressed that while the country’s advanced ability to sequence the genomes of the virus enables the identification of new strains, they could have originated elsewhere.