- The C.1.2 potential variant of interest has spread across SA, but has been detected at low frequency.
- The Delta variant continues to dominate infections in the country.
- Scientists are completing lab tests to test the vaccines' effectiveness against C.1.2, but are confident it'll remain protective.
While researchers in South Africa continue to study the C.1.2 Covid-19 variant with multiple mutations, they are "fairly confident" the vaccines will remain protective against severe disease and death caused by the virus.
"The most important thing to emphasise is that, despite the emergence of variants, such as Beta ... and Delta ... all of the vaccines happily manage to maintain their efficacy against severe disease and death," said Professor Penny Moore, the South African research chair of Virus-Host Dynamics at Wits University and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), during a press briefing on Monday.
Moore is also co-author of the study on C.1.2, which was posted on the preprint server, medRxiv, in August.
The team is currently monitoring whether the variant is more contagious than other variants of concern, or whether it is able to evade the immunity provided by the Covid-19 vaccines or prior infection in a laboratory setting, Health24 reported.
Delta still dominating
C.1.2 was first identified in South Africa in May 2021 and has been detected in all provinces of the country, said Dr Jinal Bhiman, co-author of the study and Principal Medical Scientist at the NICD.
However, Bhiman stressed that C.1.2 has been detected at low frequency and that the Delta variant, which is the fastest and fittest variant of the virus to date, continues to dominate infections in SA.
Moore reiterated this point: "C.1.2 remains a minority variant in South Africa. At present, the pandemic in South Africa continues to be dominated by Delta."
Although the variant was found in seven other countries, spanning Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday said it does not appear to be spreading.
"It does not appear to be increasing in circulation," WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris told a UN briefing, according to a Reuters report.
Harris added that C.1.2. was not currently classified as a variant of concern.
Several lab tests ongoing
Laboratory tests are underway, in which the team is trying to understand whether C.1.2 evades the antibodies from previous Covid-19 infection or vaccination.
The lab work entails taking sera (blood) from people who have been vaccinated with either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and from people who had Covid-19 infection and recovered.
The researchers then grow the C.1.2 virus in a lab and physically test the antibodies from those people against the virus, Moore explained.
Data on this is expected to be ready within the next couple of weeks, she said.
Scientists confident the vaccines will work
The C.1.2 variant shares mutations that have been seen in the Beta and Delta variants – and that are associated with a faster transmission rate and evading immunity – but just has a different mix of those mutations, co-author of the study and infectious diseases expert involved in surveillance for Covid-19 variants, Dr Richard Lessells, previously told Health24.
It also possesses additional mutations which are new.
But based on previous studies on the Beta and Delta variant, and the effect of those mutations on the virus, the researchers already have some level of understanding and can predict, to some extent, how C.1.2 will behave in relation to the vaccines.
"Those experiments are ongoing ... but based on what we do know from other variants, and based on the fact that some of the mutations in C.1.2 are shared with these other variants, we have considerable confidence that the vaccines that are being rolled out in South Africa will continue to protect us against severe disease and death," said Moore.
Protecting against severe disease
Moore also explained that protection against severe disease is mediated by a separate armour of the immune system, known as "T cells".
"And T cells are much more tolerant of mutations," said Moore.
Emerging data from many labs across the world show that, although there may be a reduction in the ability of the vaccine-induced antibodies to bind to these emerging variants, T cells, which are the cells that protect one against severe disease, maintain almost all of their activity against the current variants, added Moore.
"So while we don't yet have hard data, and we're working as hard as we can and as quickly as we can to get you those answers, this is the reason why we remain fairly confident that, despite the number of increased mutations in this variant, the vaccines that we have will still protect against severe disease," she said.
Expect new variants to emerge
An information document compiled by the study's researchers also notes that, based on their understanding of the mutations in C.1.2, they suspect that it might be able to partially evade the immune response - but, despite this, the vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death.
"We expect new variants to continue to emerge wherever the virus is spreading. Vaccination remains critical to protect those in our communities at high risk of hospitalisation and death, to reduce strain on the health system, and to help slow transmission," they said.
This has to be combined with all the other public health and social measures, and the experts advised the public to remain vigilant and continue to follow Covid-19 protocols by wearing a face mask, keeping a physical distance, and ensuring good ventilation in shared space.
"These non-pharmaceutical interventions are still proven to prevent the spread of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses," they said.
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