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New virus variant discovered in South Africa

  • fromPamela Dörhöfer

    conclude

C.1.2 has a noticeably high number of mutations, but has so far only been responsible for a fraction of the infections

And again a new variant of Sars-CoV-2 has appeared: In South Africa, a research team for the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and several South African universities have discovered a strain called “C.1.2” that carries a particularly large number of mutations; some of them are already known from other variants such as Delta. The scientists write that the C.1.2 variant has been detected in all provinces of the country, but has so far only made up a small part of the infection rate – albeit with an increasing tendency.

Much is still unknown about this variant. It cannot yet be said whether C.1.2 is more contagious and causes more severe disease in the event of an infection – and whether it is able to displace the delta variant that is also prevalent in South Africa. The study entitled “The continuous evolution of Sars-CoV-2 in South Africa: a new lineage with rapid accumulation of mutations of concern and global detection” was published preprint on “Medrxiv” and has not yet been independently assessed.

C.1.2 is said to have made up 0.2 percent of the virus genomes detected and sequenced in the laboratory in South Africa in May 2021. In June the value is said to have risen to 1.6 percent and in July to two percent. That sounds like very little, but the delta variant currently dominating in many countries started with such low values. The variant is said to have already appeared in other countries in Africa, in Europe – including Switzerland and Great Britain, but not in Germany – in China and New Zealand. The World Health Organization (WHO) has so far not classified C.1.2 as a “variant of concern” (such as alpha, beta, gamma and delta) or as a “variant under observation”.

The South African research team determined a rate of 41.8 mutations per year for C.1.2, other variants show an average of “only” about 25 genetic changes per year. This would mean that the mutation rate of C.1.2 would be around 1.7 times as high. Some of the mutations affecting the spike protein of C.1.2 are said to have previously occurred in other variants, including beta, gamma and alpha. Some of these changes could improve the ability of the virus to bind to human cells. There are also mutations in common with the delta variant.

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One concern is that some of the additional genetic changes discovered in C.1.2 could result in the protection provided by the vaccination or a previous infection being impaired even more than in the case of the Delta variant. “It could be that these mutations affect properties that enable the virus to evade the immune response or make it more contagious,” said virologist Megan Steain of Sydney’s Central Clinical School in an article in the Guardian newspaper. In order to get Delta out of the way, however, the variant has to be “pretty good, pretty fit and transferable pretty quickly,” admits the scientist. Because of this, the beta version failed in South Africa, it was pushed back by Delta. It could therefore be that the C.1.2 variant will also die out again, says Megan Steain.

The authors of the study from South Africa emphasize that further investigations are necessary in order to understand exactly what effects the mutations identified in C.1.2 have – especially in order to be able to assess whether the genetic changes have an evolutionary advantage over the Delta Variant and it could be displaced as a result.

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