What Is the C.1.2 Variant in COVID-19 Cases?

Here's what you need to know about the C.1.2 variant that was first reported in May 2021, primarily in South Africa.

Viruses are constantly changing, or mutating, and, as a result, new variants appear. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is no exception to viral evolution. Since it was first reported in December 2020, SARS-CoV-2 has formed multiple variants. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), new variants are to be expected.

One of the new branches that formed on the SARS-CoV-2 family tree was the C.1.2 variant. From May to August 2021, there were about 100 cases of C.1.2. It occurred primarily in South Africa along with 11 other countries, according to a study published in April 2022 in Nature Communications.

When variants emerge, there's much that researchers don't know about the new mutations. For example, they want to find out whether the new variant is more virulent or transmissible than other, more researched SARS-CoV-2 strains, or whether it'll outcompete the current dominant strain.

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What Do Researchers Know About the C.1.2 Variant?

When it emerged, the C.1.2 variant quickly gained much attention. This was because it contained substantial mutations that could make it more likely to spread or evade the immune system, so the preprint.

Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Health Security, told Health that the C.1.2 variant was first found in South Africa in July 2021, that it has DNA sequences dating back to May 2021, and that it has some of the same clusters of mutations present in other variations of COVID-19.

However, that new variants have similar mutations to other variations doesn't necessarily predict how they will behave (for example, whether they spread more easily). "There's the potential for more transmissibility, but it depends on how all of these mutations play along together," Kevin McCarthy, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research, told Health. Dr. Adalja added that the most important factors in any future mutations would be how they change the virus's function and compare to previous strains.

What Are Variants of Interest or Concern?

Dr. Adalja said there's no reason to be more concerned about the C.1.2 variant than other variants. The World Health Organization (WHO) collaborates with a network of international experts to monitor and assess SARS-CoV-2 and its evolutionary branches. Based on the risk to global public health, the WHO differentiates between variants under monitoring (VUMs), variants of interest (VOIs), and variants of concern (VOCs). In the US, the CDC is responsible for monitoring all variants and uses a slightly different classification system consisting of four levels: variants being monitored (VBMs), VOIs, VOCs, and variants of high consequence (VOHCs).

Basically, what makes a variant of SARS-CoV-2 a VOI by either the WHO or CDC definition is that it is easily transmitted, causes severe disease, evades the body's immune system, and escapes diagnostic and other testing. VOIs also cause an increase in prevalence in multiple clusters or multiple countries. While having all the same characteristics of VOIs, VOCs pose a higher risk to public health. This is because they are more transmissible, cause more severe disease (including hospitalization or death), are more effective at evading the immune system, can avoid diagnostic detection, and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

Although it was formerly monitored by the WHO, the C.1.2 variant is no longer a concern to public health. Something important to understand is that viruses stay alive by mutating, and Dr. Adalja said there are many variants that won't end up being consequential to the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. And even the consequential ones change over time. For example, the CDC listed the Delta variant as a VOC in June 2021, but bumped it down to a VBM in April 2022 in response to its reduced risk to public health.

What Makes a New Variant Dominant?

"Viruses compete for hosts to infect," said Dr. Adalja. The virus that is the "most fit" wins. That's why Delta and Omicron completely overtook the Alpha variant—the initial strain of COVID-19—as the primary strains in 2021.

Any new strain to outcompete a dominant variant would have to have a few key traits. Joshua LaBaer, PhD, MD, executive director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, told Health there are a few components that cause a mutation to become dominant. The Beta variant—the first mutation of SARS-CoV-2 found in South Africa in 2020—was better at evading the immune system than the original strain. Dr. LaBaer explained that while the Delta variant wasn't necessarily as good at evading the immune system, it was more powerful at outcompeting other viruses.

The Omicron variant, which emerged in November 2021, is also good at outcompeting other variants. Omicron spreads more easily than earlier strains of SARS-CoV-2, but generally causes less severe illness, according to the CDC.

It takes public effort to help reduce the number of new variants that occur. Slowing the spread of the virus by taking health precautions decreases the chances of new mutations arising, and, from them, new variants. To curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the public is encouraged to get vaccinated and practice proper hygiene.

The good news is, researchers caught C.1.2 early—far earlier than other COVID-19 variants. While previous strains were already widely circulating when scientists began to research them, McCarthy said researchers began characterizing the C.1.2 mutation when there were only 100 recorded cases. "If you can understand something about the virus, you can preempt its spread to a certain point, before it becomes a problem," said McCarthy. "It's actually a really nice example of the public watching science at its finest."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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