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Health authorities have identified the first U.S. cases of Covid-19 caused by a fast-spreading form of the coronavirus initially seen in South Africa, in two people in South Carolina.

Neither person has a history of travel to countries where the variant has been confirmed, and there is no connection between the two people, South Carolina health officials said Thursday. That indicates there has been some local spread of the variant after it arrived in the United States. One case was found in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, and one in the Lowcountry.

The announcement Thursday means that three coronavirus variants that appear to be more contagious and have emerged in recent months have all been documented in the United States. But in a way, the news was no surprise to experts. They had for weeks said the variant that first cropped up in South Africa, called B.1.351, was likely already in the U.S., but this country’s limited system of surveillance for different iterations of the coronavirus meant the variant likely went unnoticed once it was imported via a traveler and could have even been spreading.

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Earlier this week, Minnesota health officials confirmed the first Covid-19 case caused by P.1, a variant first identified in Brazil. There have been a few hundred U.S. cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which initially appeared in the United Kingdom.

All three variants are thought to be more transmissible than earlier forms of the coronavirus and, if left unchecked, could lead to more cases overall by infecting more people faster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that B.1.1.7 could become the dominant form of the coronavirus in the United States by March.

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“It’s critical that we all continue to do our part by taking small actions that make a big difference,” Brannon Traxler, South Carolina’s interim public health director, said in a statement. “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.”

The three variants evolved independently — all viruses mutate and occasionally pick up alterations that give them a transmission advantage — but happen to share some of the same mutations.

B.1.351 and P.1 in particular have raised a different set of alarms than B.1.1.7. Studies have shown that mutations that appear in both variants can help the virus partially evade the human immune response, perhaps making it more likely the variants could reinfect people who had an initial case of Covid-19.

Such studies resulted in concerns that existing Covid-19 vaccines — which were designed based on earlier iterations of the virus — might not be as effective against the variants.

On Thursday, for example, Novavax said its experimental Covid-19 vaccine was 90% effective in one trial in the U.K., but that in a separate trial in South Africa, it was 49% effective. Of the cases that occurred in the South Africa trial for which there was sequencing data, 93% were caused by B.1.351.

Other vaccines made in different ways may see less of a drop in efficacy, though more studies are ongoing. With the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, it seems like the shots do lose some of their neutralizing potency against some of the mutations seen in both P.1 and B.1.351, but that the immune response elicited by the vaccines is so overwhelmingly powerful that the shots can withstand a loss of some of their oomph while still protecting people from getting sick with Covid-19.

On Monday, Moderna said its shot should still be effective against B.1.351 despite the fact that the neutralizing antibodies generated by the vaccine do not recognize the form of the virus as well as other forms. Essentially, the antibody response induced by the shot should still be sufficient to help people ward off Covid-19. There is a question, however, of whether the immune response from the vaccines will last as long against the variants as earlier viral iterations.

So far, the studies investigating the impact of variants on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have largely focused on neutralizing antibodies, but experts note the shots also rally other parts of the immune system — including T cells, B cells, and other types of antibodies — providing additional reasons that the current vaccines should still broadly work against the variants.

Still, experts do think the coronavirus could one day pick up a certain suite of mutations that does threaten the shots’ overall effectiveness, so, they say, vaccine makers and regulators should start considering what will be required to update the immunizations to better match circulating forms of SARS-CoV-2, the scientific name of the coronavirus causes Covid-19.

Moderna and Novavax have said they are studying booster shots designed specifically against B.1.351.

For now, the most pressing concern about the variants, experts stress, remains their infectiousness. The World Health Organization, for example, warned on Thursday that B.1.351 was driving a surge in cases as it spread out of South Africa into other African nations, with Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director, saying the continent “is at a crossroads.”

Cases in the United States remain sky-high, but they are coming down from peaks earlier this month. If any of the variants take off, the country could see yet another spike. It will also take a greater portion of the population to be immune to the virus to slow the spread of more contagious variants, adding even more pressure to the U.S. vaccine campaign.

In the past week, scientists in the U.K. have been reporting that the variant first seen there, B.1.1.7, may also be deadlier than other forms of the virus, though they are still parsing through national data.

Generally, experts actually fear a more transmissible virus more than one that is correspondingly more lethal; more infectious variants could lead to more deaths overall even if they’re not deadlier just because they result in that many more cases.

But with B.1.1.7, “unfortunately, it looks as if this virus might be both,” said John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

This story has been updated with details from Novavax’s clinical trials. 

  • Where can I get a vaccine in Oconee county SC? I am 67 years old . And have asthma
    Cindy cathey

  • I want to keep up with the South Africa coronavirus variant and how it is spreading and if it spreads like the covid 19, and if it spreads different. Thank You and be safe.

  • Wis. resident visiting daughter in South Carolina not able to get vaccine .will be here for3 months 72 years old with RA no exceptions

  • I don’t believe I have to inform people of this. I have done online-research; not-too-extensive, just to learn more info than Donny Chump was errantly giving to the public. A virus, Covid is like the Flu, which requires yearly shots to immunize against. The Flu virus adapts continually to survive. Coviud-19 was the 2019-versiaon of Covid. The 2020-version of Covid has not been identified. I suspect it is one of the variants of Covid. “Covid-20”? “Covid-21”? The different strains that have been identified MIGHT BE the yearly-versions/adaptations of the Coronavirus. Just sayin’… (ps – I’m not a real doctor; I just play one on TV)

  • This disease has been relatively non lethal overall, hasn’t it? The victims tend to be elderly, already sick with other diseases and generally involving compromised immune systems. Rushing vaccines out and into use before quality control and effectiveness trials have been conducted seems to me to be a potential source of even more covid related deaths. Perhaps a vaccine might accidentally introduce a more virulent form of the virus into the world?

    Something can always go wrong, just think back to the polio vaccines that have given so many of us cancers. These soft tissue cancers came from the animal flesh that was used to grow the virus that would be used to create. The vaccine being used was full of an unknown cancer causing virus known as SR70. Sometimes the cure is found to be worse than the disease it is treating.

    • Covid is NOT just a concern for unhealthy elderly! It has killed over 2 million people worldwide, just over 400,000 and counting in the US alone. Otherwise healthy infants have died. Young, healthy children have died. Healthy young adults in their 20’s & 30’s and 40’s have died. It has also taken the lives of many, MANY healthcare workers on the front lines, leaving hospitals even more short of educated, talented and dedicated providers to are for Covid and other patients.

    • Definitely the vaccine will cause a stronger virus mutation since they will mutate to overcome the antibodies. Flu virus has been doing that.

      If everybody wear a proper mask all the time in public for 2 months, follow proper hygiene and avoid contaminating places, we would face overcome this virus. Of course the mask mask be disposed of properly.

      But because some people are really nut headed or cannot afford mask, we will be stuck will this virus forever.

  • A large portion of the South African population is immunocompromised because of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. The results for otherwise healthy adults in the US should be better.

  • This is important information but I think it is important to know, Manaus Brazil had a huge rate of infection in Spring 2020, and another huge one started recently and is ongoing.
    This indicates grave danger to the US, as it appears Manaus should have been safer than we are. Levels of infection sufficient to confer herd immunity were reported

    The fact a new huge outbtrak is occuring has scientists and doctors very scared. Even IF our vaccines have the “cushion” thst will not help the 90% of us not vaccinated, and a highly contagious variant will spread to them before the vaccine. The UK variant becoming dominant might be very good news, even if more lethal, it appears to not infect people who were previously infected, it being dominant would mean the other variants somehow were not and the total number of cases remained small compared to what it could have bee

    The real fear is one of the other two becoming dominant by infecting large numbers of people who have recovered from the first wave variant. No, not large numbers –HUGE numbers.
    We need very strict requirements for international travelers, in the hope Brazil variant is not spreading and we can keep it out. Probably we should also divert vaccine and personnel to South Carolina to get as mamy people protected, or to find out if they work at all, against that variant, and get contact tracers to Minnesota to try to stop that one.

    • I agree that this is extremely concerning. My guess is that the 501.V2 (South African) variant has spread beyond South Carolina at this point. The two people in whom it was detected were in different regions of the state and had not traveled recently, indicating that community spread is underway. We are nearly flying blind with the limited amount of genomic surveilance in use right now, with a scantly vaccinated population. It does sound as though the vaccine protects against the U.K. variant better than the Brazilian or South African variants, but hopefully it will confer sufficient protection to those who are fortunate enough to receive it in the coming weeks.

  • Awhile ago some commenter here in statnews was making the theory that the virus was more infectious but less deadly because it want to survived. It was total nonsense. People are easily influence by what they is in the media without using their mind.

    If the virus binds tighter in the body and also cause a higher virus load, it means more damage to the body. Therefore, more deadly.

    Now UK is saying that the UK variant is more deadly. Where are all these stupid commenters who are saying that virus will be less deadly because it wants to survived?

    You see a lot of people with little knowledge making a lot of assumptions, this is why the world is where it is today, too many wrong assumptions.

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