Scientists 'Concerned' About New COVID Variant's Potential to Spread, Evade Vaccines

A COVID-19 variant's increased mutations have raised concerns among research scientists that it could potentially evade vaccines and spread more easily within communities.

The C.1.2 variant was first identified in May in South Africa and it accounts for less than one percent of COVID cases worldwide. Scientists from South Africa's National Institute of Communicable Diseases and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, believe the new variant's prevalence may be underrepresented and advocated for continual research on the variant to determine if its mutations make it more dangerous than the Delta variant.

In the study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, the authors reported they found a "potential variant of interest" within the C.1.2 lineage. C.1.2 has had multiple changes in the spike protein that are associated with increased transmissibility and vaccine evasion, which have been found in other variants of concern.

The "greater concern," according to the report, is that the mutation rate for the C.1.2 lineage is 1.7 times faster than the global rate. "It is important to highlight this lineage given its concerning constellation of mutations," the report said.

Tulio de Oliveira, a professor at South Africa's University of KwaZulu-Natal and co-author of the report, posted on Twitter that the variant is in the "early days." However, he said they decided to publish the paper before it was peer-reviewed because they've found in the pandemic it's crucial to "share info quicker [rather] than later."

Cathrine Scheepers, a lead author of the research, told New Frame, a South African not-for-profit media publication, scientists are "concerned" about the variant. However, they're not sure if the mutations of C.1.2 are more easily transmissible or if this new COVID variant would be able to evade vaccines.

Discovering an increase in sequences assigned to C.1.2 in May was "unexpected" because they hadn't been detected since January, the paper said. When comparing the mutations of new sequences and the older sequences, scientists found they had "mutated substantially." Scientists also believe it's mutations make it the most different from the original virus that was detected in Wuhan, China.

south africa variant concerned vaccine spread
A woman receives a dose of the Johnson and Johnson Covid-19 vaccine from a healthcare worker at the Zwartkops Raceway in Centurion on August 13, 2021. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images) Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

The C.1.2 variant was among those that were most prevalent in the first wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections in South Africa. C.1.2 has since been detected in the majority of South Africa's provinces, as well as, in other countries in Europe and Asia.

South Africa's Department of Health alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to the potential new variant, according to New Frame. Anban Pillay, deputy director general of the Department of Health, told New Frame the C.1.2 variant has been in the country since its first wave of cases but hasn't become the dominant variant.

"New variants are bound to develop as a natural evolution of the virus," Pillay added. "The evidence to date indicates that the nonpharmaceutical interventions remain the key responses to these variants."

Only about 15 percent of South Africa's population has been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a tracker maintained by Brown University. Low vaccination rates give the virus a better chance at spreading through communities and the more cases there are, the better the chance the virus has to mutate.

Given the low vaccination rates across the continent of Africa, the WHO has urged countries to put a moratorium on third-shot booster doses and send that critical supplies to lower-income areas, where health care workers haven't even been inoculated. Failing to vaccinate the global population could allow a variant to emerge that is vaccine-resistant, requiring the development of new vaccines and a re-vaccination campaign, WHO officials have warned.

Pillay told News Frame scientists were looking at the in vitro effectiveness of the vaccines on the C.1.2 lineage. The results are expected in the next "couple of weeks."

Newsweek reached out to the World Health Organization for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.