Covid variant detected in South Africa is ‘most mutated’ strain so far

Scientists have linked the strain to “increased transmissibility” and warned it may have the potential to evade coronavirus vaccines

A Covid variant first identified in South Africa “could be more infectious” than all other mutations identified so far, scientists warn.

The C.1.2 strain was detected by scientists in South Africa in May this year and is thought to have the potential to evade coronavirus vaccines.

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After being identified in South Africa, the variant has since been found in England, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritius, New Zealand, Portugal and Switzerland.

‘Most mutated variant so far’

Scientists have linked the strain to “increased transmissibility” and is said to be the most mutated variant that has been detected so far since the virus was first discovered in Wuhan, China, last year.

The C.1.2 strain has a mutation rate of around 41.8 mutations per year, according to experts at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform.

This is almost double the current global mutation rate for any other coronavirus Variant of Concern (VOC) that has been found to date.

Researchers have discovered a monthly increase in the number of C.1.2 genomes in South Africa, which increased from 0.2 per cent in May to 1.6 per cent in June. This rose again in July to 2.0.

The Alpha, Beta and Gamma variants have also all shown short periods of consistent increase in mutations, with scientists discovering that 14 mutations in nearly 50 per cent of the variants had a C.1.2 sequence.

It is thought that this ability to consistently mutate could help the virus to evade antibodies provided by the Covid-19 vaccine, thereby reducing immunity.

Scientists published the findings in the scientific journal Nature, writing: “We describe and characterise a newly identified SARS-CoV-2 lineage with several spike mutations that is likely to have emerged in a major metropolitan area in South Africa after the first wave of the epidemic, and then to have spread to multiple locations within two neighbouring provinces.

“We show that this lineage has rapidly expanded and become dominant in three provinces, at the same time as there has been a rapid resurgence in infections.

“Although the full import of the mutations is not yet clear, the genomic and epidemiological data suggest that this variant has a selective advantage—from increased transmissibility, immune escape or both.

“These data highlight the urgent need to refocus the public health response in South Africa on driving transmission down to low levels, not only to reduce hospitalisations and deaths but also to limit the spread of this lineage and the further evolution of the virus.”

Covid strain is among 10 variants in UK

Public Health England has revealed that the C.1.2 strain is among 10 coronavirus variants currently being monitored by scientists in the UK.

Another South African strain, dubbed B.1.351, was discovered by scientists in a study in April which had the potential to “break through” the protection provided by the Pfizer vaccine.

Researchers compared almost 400 people who had tested positive for Covid-19 14 days or more after they had received one or two doses of the jab against the same number of people who were ill with the virus and unvaccinated.

Findings showed that the vaccine appeared to be less effective against the B.1.351 variant, after the variant was found among many of those who had received two doses.

The results suggest that the variant is, “to some extent”, able to “break through the vaccine’s protection”.

However, researchers said that the prevalence of the B.1.351 strain among those tested was low, meaning it has not spread widely through the population.

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