Health care workers at the Medical University of South Carolina will conduct free Covid-19 tests at a location in a parking lot between Edmund’s Oast and Butcher & Bee restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, USA on Wednesday, January 13, 2021.
Micah Green | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The first US Covid-19 cases of a new, highly contagious strain of the virus, first found in South Africa, were discovered in South Carolina, the state’s Department of Health said Thursday.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said the strain known as B.1.351 was found in two adults who had not previously traveled or connected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told South Carolina health officials late Wednesday that a sample tested at LabCorp was variant B.1.351, the health department said Thursday.
The state health laboratory later identified “a separate case of the same variant” in a sample tested Monday, the South Carolina Department of Health said in a statement. While the burden appears to be highly transferable, it doesn’t appear to make people sick, the health department said.
“The arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 variant in our state is an important reminder for all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, the division’s interim director, in a statement.
Mutant strains of the coronavirus have migrated to the United States in the past few weeks. Minnesota health officials on Monday identified the first US case of a similar variant, first discovered in Brazil. The US has also identified more than 300 cases with another strain, first found in the UK and known as B.1.1.7, according to recent data from the CDC.
The appearance of these new strains did not surprise the scientists. The US is quickly trying to step up its surveillance efforts to track through genomic sequencing the new strains that may come from abroad or “may come from our own country,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the CDC, last week.
“CDC is early in its efforts to understand this variant and will continue to provide updates as we learn more,” the health department said in a statement. “The CDC’s recommendations to slow the spread – wearing masks, staying at least 3 meters away from others, avoiding crowds, ventilating indoor spaces, and washing hands frequently – also prevent this variant from spreading.”
Both strains of the virus found in the UK and South Africa have similar mutations, but experts say they evolved separately. While it’s no surprise that the virus is mutating, researchers are quick to figure out what the changes could mean for recently developed life-saving vaccines and treatments for the disease.
The B.1.351 strain appears to be more problematic than the variant found in the UK, said White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Wednesday. Fauci said during a press conference that the antibodies induced by the vaccine may be less effective in combating this strain, although “it still sits well in its protective cushion”.
Early results, which were published on the preprint server bioRxiv and have not yet been peer-reviewed, indicate that variant B.1.351 can evade the antibodies of some coronavirus treatments and reduce the effectiveness of the current range of available vaccines. On Monday, Moderna said his vaccine may be less effective against strain B.1.351 and that he was developing a so-called booster shot to protect this variant “out of caution”.
Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said in a CNN interview on Wednesday that the new mRNA technology used to develop the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines – the only two to have received emergency approval to date – this can be easy to tweak to target the variants.
These booster vaccinations would not have to go through the rigorous phase three clinical trials, which involved thousands of participants, he added.
“You don’t have to do a 30,000 person process or a 40,000 person process,” said Fauci. “You work with the FDA and can bridge information from one study to the next. The bottom line is that we’re already at it.”
The World Health Organization warned on Thursday that more contagious variants of Covid-19 are “fueling the second wave of Africa” and that the variant first identified in South Africa “prevails and delivers record numbers in South Africa and the sub-region”.
According to the WHO, the B.1.351 strain has now been identified in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, the French region of Mayotte, Zambia and 24 other non-African countries. As of Monday, coronavirus infections in the region have risen 50% since December 29, compared to the last four weeks, according to the WHO. The number of deaths from Covid-19 has also increased, roughly doubling over the same period.
WHO said it is working with the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set up laboratories for surveillance efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda.
The United Nations Health Department said each country should send at least 20 samples to the labs to “reflect the rapidly evolving situation and best target responses at all levels”.
“The variant that was first discovered in South Africa has quickly spread beyond Africa. So what keeps me awake at night is that it is very likely to be around a number of African countries,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a statement.
– CNBC’s Will Feuer contributed to this report.