Researchers are tracking a new coronavirus variant that was recently identified in South Africa and appears to have a startling number of mutations with the potential to give it an evolutionary advantage over other viral strains.
The C.1.2 variant of the virus was first identified in May and officially identified in July. It evolved from C.1, the virus that was dominant in South Africa’s first epidemic.
In May, C.1.2 accounted for 0.2% of 1,054 genomes sequenced by a team based in South Africa as part of a surveillance program, according to a preliminary report posted on MedRxiv. In June, that share was up to 1.6% of 2,177 samples, and by July, it had climbed to 2% of 1,326 samples.
This pattern is similar to those seen in Beta in South Africa at early detection,” the study authors stated. They were referring to coronavirus variants that were first discovered in India and South Africa.
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C.1.2 is now spread across Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Europe. It has been spotted by scientists in Botswana and Mauritius, China (New Zealand), Portugal, Switzerland, and New Zealand.
Will the United States become next? Do we need to be concerned?
To find out, we talked with Dr. Stuart Ray, an immunologist and infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Ramon Lorenzo-Redondo, a molecular virologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
What is the C.1.2 variant of ?
It is important to understand what it isn’t. Currently, the World Health Organization categorizes troubling variants into two categories:
- Variants of interest: These have genetic markers linked to changes in transmissibility, receptor binding or other traits that may improve the virus’ fitness.
- Variants of concern: These are viruses for which there’s actual real-world evidence of traits that make them a bigger challenge to deal with. They can spread faster, cause more severe diseases, or decrease the effectiveness of the immune system’s antibodies.
The ones that are known as Eta or Iota, Kappa or Lambda or Mu are all classified as variants of interests.
So far, C.1.2 is not on either of these lists.
So why are people talking about it?
Scientists have been carrying out genomic surveillance on samples taken from routine coronavirus testing in South Africa. They’ve discovered a number of worrying mutations that could help the virus infect cells and evade the body’s defenses.
And that’s just the beginning: Lorenzo Redondo stated that there are “some additional mutations that could be important” in determining how successful the virus will end up being.
Ray also agreed.
“It contains some mutations that could possibly be called “mutations of interest” because they are the types of mutations that can make a variant become an variant of interest.” he stated.
Many of the shared mutations, such as one called N501Y, are linked to an improved ability to bind with the ACE2 receptor on the outside of a cell; the virus targets this receptor in order to “unlock” cells and gain entry.
Other mutations are linked to reduced effectiveness of antibodies, whether they’re generated in response to a COVID-19 vaccine or a prior coronavirus infection.
Why are people saying it’s “highly mutated”?
The variant appears to have generated a lot of mutations in a relatively short time. According to the MedRXiv report, C.1.2’s rate is approximately 1.7 times faster than the global coronavirus rate.
” “It’s striking because it carries so much change that is worrisome and also has this characteristic that appears to have evolved quickly,” Ray stated.
The report authors stated that this higher rate seems to be in line with the rise of influential variants such as Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.
Ray quickly made a distinction between the rate of mutations versus the rate of evolution. Although mutations are necessary for evolution, they don’t guarantee it.
“Mutation can occur at random,” he stated. Mutation can occur anytime a virus replicates within an infected host — and viruses reproduce a lot.
Most mutations are not beneficial to the virus. Some mutations may give the virus an advantage, helping it adapt to new environments or presenting new opportunities for spreading.
” When an organism finds a new niche, it faces new challenges,” Ray stated. He said that when this happens, “it might evolve faster for a little while.”
The report authors claim that C.1.2’s high level of mutations could be due to “a prolonged period of accelerated evolutionary in a single individual with long-lasting viral infection”. This was far more than the two-week average.
With the ability to replicate freely for a long period of time in one person’s body, those rare beneficial mutations can really start to add up.
Are vaccines, or the antibodies from a previous infection, less effective against C.1.2?
A number of C.1.2 mutations affect the virus’ spike protein. This is what it uses “unlock” its target cells. It is also the protein that mRNA vaccinations teach the immune system to recognize in order to be ready for attack.
Antibodies are made in response to infection and are tailored to the spike protein of the virus.
Ray stated that changes to the spike protein are “worrisome” because they could affect antibodies and other immune reactions, which can hinder the virus from getting into cells.
If the changes are enough to block antibodies from recognising C.1.2, it might be easier for it slip through the immune system.
” We need to be cautious,” Ray stated.
But antibodies don’t represent the end-all or be-all of the body’s immune response, Ray said. T cells and other lymphocytes, also known as lymphocytes, can attack foreign bodies.
“Ray said that there are still many things that T cells can recognize.
How worried should we be?
You can take a deep breath. Experts agree that the appearance of a new variant does not necessarily mean imminent doom.
” Many of the variants that we hear about are a flash in the pan. We don’t know if they will grow into anything big. Ray stated.
Currently, Delta is the most significant concern. It is the dominant strain in the U.S. and the variant to beat.
“We have learned that footraces between variants tell us a lot how aggressive they can be,” Ray stated, pointing out the rapid growth of Delta to account for most coronavirus infections. “If a variant cannot outcompete its rivals, it is less likely to be a persistent threat.”
” We would like to see C.1.2 overtake Delta. Ray stated that there is a possibility that the C.1.2 will be able to perform certain functions. “So we must be vigilant .”
The bigger concern is this, Lorenzo Redondo stated: More dangerous variants of the virus will emerge as more people are not vaccinated.
” This is a global conflict right now,” he stated.
To avoid the rise of more variants that could prolong the epidemic, he said, more people around the world need to have access to vaccines.