Here’s the truth—I don’t want to write about another COVID variant. I assume I want to write about a potentially game changing variant about as much as anyone wants to read about another one. I want to close my ears and sing loud and wait until the words COVID, variant, and pandemic are far off in the past.
Unfortunately, that’s not an option. Not when too much of the world’s population isn’t yet vaccinated, and when our children are still susceptible to illness. Not when ignoring the existence of variants doesn’t make them go away.
The only real option is to pay attention to the experts when they sit up and take notice and then learn as much as we can.
With respect to the newest COVID-19 variant, C.1.2, the experts are sitting up and taking notice. So we need to start learning.
Why Are Experts Sounding The Alarm?
The C.1.2 variant was first identified in South Africa in May and so far, though it’s spread to other countries, it’s not taking over. Experts, including Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist and a co-author of the (not yet peer-reviewed) study that brought the existence of this mutation into the conversation, noted that C.1.2 probably only accounts for about two percent of all cases in South Africa. (The Delta variant is still the dominant variant.)
So why the alarm—especially when the World Health Organization hasn’t declared C.1.2 either a “variant of concern” or a “variant of interest?”
The answer is both simple and scary. C.1.2 contains a “concerning constellations of mutations.” It’s the most mutated variant we’ve seen so far. Those mutations have the potential to wreak havoc in all the worst ways—think evading vaccines and easier transmissibility.
Dr Megan Steain, a virologist and lecturer in immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Sydney’s Central Clinical School, confirmed that C.1.2 “contains quite a few key mutations,” which could impact how easily the virus transmits or how well it evades our immune system.
Unfortunately, we won’t know whether all those mutations add up to a more dangerous variant for some time. All the mutations together could create some terrible super variant that evades our immune response, or they could fit together in a way that makes the virus weaker. (Let’s hope for the latter.)
Either way, discovery and research of this new variant are important. As we’ve learned, it’s better to be ahead of the virus than scrambling to catch up.
Are The Vaccines Effective Against C.1.2?
Vaccines are our best and brightest weapon against COVID. They’re highly effective at preventing serious illness and death, even against the Delta variant. A variant that could evade the vaccines could cause more damage than any of us want to imagine. Which is why, the biggest question when it comes to any new variant is: will it evade our immune systems?
Unfortunately, when it comes to C.1.2, we don’t know whether the existing vaccines will be effective. Only time will tell. But, COVID and all its variants have been around long enough that experts are able to make an educated guess.
“[W] e think, perhaps, the serum won’t neutralise as well as it would against an ancestral strain,” Dr. Steain said, who also highlighted the more important point—that the vaccines are still “holding up really, really well in terms of preventing severe infection and hospitalisations and deaths from variants.”
South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases confirmed as much. They said, “Based on our understanding of the mutations in this variant, we suspect that it might be able to partially evade the immune response, but despite this, that vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death.”
Meaning, while C.1.2 might lead to breakthrough infections, there’s a good chance the vaccines will still prevent hospitalization and death. If the goal is to save lives and preserve the health care system, then that’s good news.
More research is needed though before we’ll know for sure.
Should You Panic About C.1.2?
Short answer is no. C.1.2 could die out before it ever becomes a real problem, according to experts. That’s happened before with other variants that seemed like they’d take off and then don’t. “[T]hey they just essentially die out,” Steain said. “That could easily still happen with C.1.2.”
However, the opposite could happen. Variants that seem quiet can suddenly take off and become the dominant strain in just a few weeks, according to Lessells, who points to the Beta and Delta variants as examples.
In an interview with USA Today, William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also pointed to Delta, noting that it “spent a long time in India not really taking off, and then when it did, we were left catching its coattails.”
Even with that potential in mind, you shouldn’t panic. Not only because C.1.2 doesn’t appear to be spreading or circulating with any increasing frequency, according to the WHO, but because the brightest minds are already paying attention.
“Every time that a variant appears in the world, our scientists are getting their hands around it,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told Fox News.
That’s good news for all of us.
In the meantime, we all need to do our part. Stay educated, listen to experts, and get vaccinated as soon as you can.