According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), South African scientists have discovered a novel coronavirus variant with numerous mutations but have yet to determine if it is more infectious or capable of overcoming protection given by vaccinations or past infection.
The variation, known as C.1.2, was identified last week in a preprint paper that has yet to be peer-reviewed by the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation and Sequencing Platform. C.1.2 was only “present at extremely low levels,” according to NICD scientists, and it was too early to determine how it would evolve.
While the bulk of coronavirus infections in South Africa are presently caused by the Delta variation, which was discovered in India, C.1.2 piqued scientists' interest since its mutation rate is nearly double that of other worldwide variants.
Its frequency, however, remains very low, having been found in fewer than 3% of genomes sequenced since its discovery in May - albeit this has grown from 0.2 percent to 2 percent in the previous month.
“At this stage, we do not have experimental data to confirm how it reacts in terms of sensitivity to antibodies,” NICD researcher Penny Moore said during a virtual press briefing.
“[But] we have considerable confidence that the vaccines that are being rolled out in South Africa will continue to protect us against severe illness and death,” she added.
C.1.2 has so far been discovered in all nine provinces of South Africa, as well as in other regions of the world such as China, Mauritius, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
It is, however, not common enough to be considered a "variant of interest" or a "variant of concern," as the highly transmissible Delta and Beta variants that appeared in South Africa late last year were.
South Africa has been the worst impacted country in Africa, with over 2.7 million COVID-19 cases documented so far, at least 81,830 of which have been fatal.
The Beta variation was responsible for a second wave of infections in December and January, and the country is now dealing with a persistent third Delta-dominated wave that is expected to overlap with a fourth wave.