How dangerous is South African Covid-19 variant? First two US cases of virus strain detected in South Carolina

Like the UK and Brazilian variants, preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants, noted the CDC


                            How dangerous is South African Covid-19 variant? First two US cases of virus strain detected in South Carolina
Both are adults: one from the Lowcountry and one from the Pee Dee region (Getty Images)

Two cases of one of the most worrisome coronavirus variants — first identified in South Africa — have been confirmed in South Carolina, according to state health officials. This makes it the first time that the fast-spreading South African strain called B.1.351 has been found in the US. Neither of the two adults had a history of travel to other countries where the variant has been confirmed and there is no connection between the two patients.

“At this point in time, there is no known travel history and no connection between these two cases. Both are adults — one from the Lowcountry and one from the Pee Dee region. To protect their privacy, no further information will be released,” announced the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) on January 28. Both cases were originally tested in early January, according to Dr Brannon Traxler, the health department’s interim public health director.

“The arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 variant in our state is an important reminder to all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over. While more Covid-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together,” she advised.

Both cases were originally tested in early January (Getty Images)

South Carolina public health officials were notified late on January 27 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of a South Carolina sample that was tested at LabCorp and determined to be the B.1.351 variant. The DHEC’s public health laboratory also tested samples on January 25 as well as on January 27 and identified a separate case of the same variant. 

“Since June 2020, DHEC’s public health laboratory has been performing tests of random samples in order to identify any instances of the variant viruses. The public health laboratory will continue to conduct this important sampling to identify any other changes in the virus,” said the statement.

Since June 2020, DHEC’s public health laboratory has been performing tests of random samples in order to identify any instances of the variant viruses (Getty Images)

The announcement on January 28 implies that three coronavirus variants that appear to be more contagious and have emerged in recent months have now all been documented in the US. So far, 315 US cases of the UK strain called B.1.1.7 have been reported to the CDC. Recently, the first known case of the Brazil P.1 Covid-19 strain in the US was discovered in a patient in Minnesota. 

US Covid-19 cases caused by the UK variant (CDC)

B.1.351 lineage 

The virus that causes Covid-19 is a type of coronavirus. Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surfaces. The three emerging variants (B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1) contain mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that it uses to infect cells, which contribute to the increased infectiousness. The B.1.351 strain has multiple mutations in the spike protein, including K417T, E484K and N501Y. 

B.1.351 was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples dating back to the beginning of October 2020, and cases have since been detected outside of South Africa in many countries. The variant also was identified in Zambia in late December 2020, at which time it appeared to be the predominant variant in the country. 

The B.1.351 strain has multiple mutations in the spike protein, including K417T, E484K, and N501Y
(Getty Images)

B.1.351 has emerged independently of the variant detected in the UK but shares some mutations with it. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that this variant causes more severe illness. However, it seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of coronavirus. 

“The CDC is aware that the first US documented cases of the B 1.351 variant of SARS-CoV-2, which was first detected in South Africa, have been identified in South Carolina. CDC is early in its efforts to understand this variant and will continue to provide updates as we learn more. At this time, we have no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease. Like the UK and Brazilian variants, preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants,” the agency noted. 

The CDC has advised Americans to avoid travel at this time. Additional measures have been put in place to increase safety for those who must travel. As of January 26, all air passengers flying into the US must provide a negative test result or documentation of recovery to the airline before they board a flight to the US.  

The agency continues to recommend following public health measures, which include wearing masks, staying at least six feet apart from others, avoiding crowds, ventilating indoor spaces and washing hands often.

The CDC recommends that people avoid travel at this time (Getty Images)

“We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate. That’s why it’s critical that we all continue to do our part by taking small actions that make a big difference. These include wearing our masks, staying at least six feet apart from others, avoiding large crowds, washing our hands, getting tested often, and when we can, getting vaccinated. These are the best tools for preventing the spread of the virus, no matter the strain,” emphasized Dr Traxler.

Scientists are working to learn more about these variants to better understand how easily they might be transmitted and the effectiveness of currently authorized vaccines against them. The spike protein is the target for Covid-19 vaccines developed by companies such as Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Novavax have each reported that their vaccines, while still effective, may offer less protection against the South African variant.

“CDC will continue communicating with international, state, and local partners to monitor the presence and impact of variants in the US and around the world,” said the agency.

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