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First known cases of South African COVID-19 variant found in South Carolina, health officials say

Kershaw Mental Health Clinic in Camden, South Carolina. (Joshua Boucher/The State/TNS)

The first two cases in the United States of a contagious new strain of COVID-19 were confirmed in South Carolina, the Department of Health and Environmental Control said Thursday.

The coronavirus variant that recently emerged in South Africa was confirmed in two samples from South Carolina that were tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts said existing vaccines will work to protect from this variant, even if it isn’t known precisely how effective the vaccines are, DHEC said in a news release. While this variant is believed to spread more easily, there’s no evidence to suggest that the B.1.351 variant causes more severe illness, according to health officials.

Both of the confirmed cases of the variant were found in adult South Carolina residents — one from the Lowcountry and one from the Pee Dee region, according to the release.

There’s currently no known travel history and no connection between these two cases, DHEC said.

“This is important information for South Carolinians to have, but it isn’t a reason for panic,” Gov. Henry McMaster said on Twitter.

While the variant is believed to spread more easily, it is not currently considered to be more lethal, McMaster posted.

“This is still COVID-19, and we know what we can do to help mitigate its spread — wear a face covering when you’re in close proximity to others, practice social distancing when possible, and be courteous to our neighbors,” the governor tweeted.

South Carolina public health officials were notified late Wednesday by the CDC of a South Carolina sample that was tested at LabCorp and determined to be the B.1.351 variant originally identified in South Africa, according to the release. Also, DHEC’s Public Health Laboratory tested samples Monday, and on Wednesday identified a separate case of the same variant, health officials said.

Multiple variants of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have emerged independently in recent months and are now circulating globally.

The most notable variants are ones first identified in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa. As of Thursday, all three variants have been identified in the United States.

While there is no evidence that any of the variants cause more severe illness or increase the risk of mortality, they are believed to be more transmissible, meaning they can spread more quickly through the population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to differences in transmissibility, COVID-19 variants also may differ in their ability to be detected by existing diagnostic tests, their susceptibility to current treatments and their capacity for evading natural and vaccine-induced immune responses, according to the CDC.

The B.1.351 variant that originated in South African has been identified in more than 30 countries, but the cases reported in South Carolina Thursday are the first of this variant identified in the U.S., health officials said.

“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,” DHEC Interim Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said in the release. “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.”

Other states have had cases of the U.K. strain, called B.1.1.7, according to DHEC. Both variants originally detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa spread more easily and quickly than the majority of SARS-CoV-2 variants.

The South Africa and United Kingdom variants emerged independently from each other and have different characteristics, according to the release. Most variants do not change how the virus behaves and many disappear, health officials said.

The B.1.1.7 strain was first identified in December 2020, though British health officials had collected samples of it as early as September.

Health officials said it was unique as the mutated version of the virus is more contagious than previously identified strains. An epidemiologist at Imperial College London estimated that the virus spreads 50-70% faster than other variants. Research on the strain is ongoing.

By the week of Dec. 9, the variant was responsible for 60% of the cases in London, health experts said.

As of late December, there was no strong evidence that the strain caused more serious symptoms than other strains.

Still, governments across the world locked down travel to and from the United Kingdom.

The strain was first discovered in the United States in the last days of 2020. The man who contracted it lives in Colorado and had no travel history. Public health officials were still conducting an investigation when they announced the discovery.

“We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate,” Traxler said. “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 6 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.”

Since June 2020, DHEC said it has performed tests of random samples to identify any instances of the variant viruses. DHEC said it will continue to conduct this important sampling to identify any other changes in the virus.


© 2021 The State
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