C.1.2 COVID Variant Has 'Concerning Mix' of Mutations, Expert Says

The C.1.2 variant of COVID has a mixture of mutations, some of which have not been seen in other variants of the virus so far—but certain ones we do recognize are associated with evolutionary advantages, experts have told Newsweek.

The variant was first identified in South Africa in May and has spread across the country. Research also suggests that the variant may be in several other nations, Reuters reports.

But the jury is still out as to just how dangerous the variant is, as scientists don't have a lot of data to work with.

So what do we know?

What is known is that the variant is heavily mutated. In fact, it's one of the most mutated forms of COVID we know about, according to Penny Moore and Cathrine Scheepers, both virus experts at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg, who have taken part in research into C.1.2.

They told Newsweek: "This variant has about 14 mutations within the spike region, though this varies by sequence. This is more than the majority of the variants of concern [VOCs] and variants of interest [VOIs] we see circulating."

Moore and Scheepers added that about half of the mutations in C.1.2 are ones seen before in other variants. This includes E484K, the spike mutation that appears to have an impact on the body's immune response to the virus and, possibly, vaccine efficacy.

Recognizable characteristics such as this are what led researchers to flag the variant for active monitoring, since C.1.2 has a "concerning mix of mutations," according to Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa.

These mutations could help C.1.2 evade the immune response and potentially spread more efficiently based on what we already know about certain mutations from other variants. The N501Y mutation, for instance, has been linked to increased transmission.

What don't we know?

Quite a lot. For one thing, many of the mutations found in the C.1.2 lineage have not been seen in other variants yet.

These unknowns "may have a functional impact," Moore and Scheepers said, but at this stage it's still something that the researchers are investigating.

They listed C136F, Y449H and N679K as mutations that "have not been seen before in VOCs or VOIs." Significantly, though, they are positioned in areas that are known to be associated with reduced antibody responses or increased transmissibility.

Yet for all the above, it's important to note that we still don't know how dangerous C.1.2 is, including how it compares to the Delta variant.

While the variant has been detected across South Africa, it still only accounts for two to three percent of the country's infections, Moore and Scheepers said.

And despite the high number of mutations, the World Health Organization has not even listed C.1.2 as a variant of interest, let alone a variant of concern like Delta, Gamma, Beta or Alpha, due to the low levels of infection reported.

"[We] currently don't know the functional impact of the particular combination of these mutations that we see in C.1.2," said Megan Steain, lecturer in Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Sydney in Australia.

"It's important for us to keep sequencing this virus so we can see what's out there, and monitor the spread of new variants, but we can't be alarmed every time a new variant pops up."

For Lessells, C.1.2 could potentially go either way. While research is ongoing to determine how it competes with Delta on a population level, the variant "may well fizzle out and be of no major significance," he said.

Masks and jabs are still the way

All the experts Newsweek spoke to echoed the same point regarding C.1.2—that vaccination still offers a high degree of protection against severe disease, even against the known COVID variants.

Non-pharmaceutical interventions including wearing masks, washing hands and keeping a safe distance from people work to prevent the spread of COVID regardless of variants, said Moore and Scheepers, who added that the roll-out of vaccines is also "crucial in keeping the spread and potential of new variants low."

COVID lab
A stock photo shows a scientist working with COVID test tubes in a lab. Research is ingoing to determine how dangerous the C.1.2 variant is. mbz-photodesign/Getty