South Carolina detects cases of COVID-19 variant that originated in South Africa

Jan. 29, 2021

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) announced the detection of two cases associated with the SARS-CoV-2 variant that first emerged recently in South Africa. These are the first two cases of this variant in the United States, according to a news release from the department.

At this point in time, there is no known travel history and no connection between these two cases, the DHEC officials said, suggesting that the variant may be spreading in the community. Both are adults; one from the Lowcountry and one from the Pee Dee region, the department said, adding that it wouldn’t release further information about the patients to protect their privacy.

The evidence so far about how well vaccines protect against the variant from South Africa varies. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is "slightly lower" when compared to the protection offered from other variants, according to the companies, while Moderna said it noted a "six-fold reduction" in the effectiveness of its vaccine against the South African variant. Moderna also has announced that it is pursuing several strategies to develop a booster shot, including an emerging-variant booster candidate (mRNA-1273.351) against  B.1.351, or South African, variant.

Novavax, which is developing a vaccine candidate, said its Phase 2b clinical trial in South Africa demonstrated 60 percent efficacy. Based on preliminary sequencing data of 27 of the 44 COVID-19 events, 92.6 percent were of the B.1.351 variant. 

South Carolina public health officials were notified by the 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 originally identified in South Africa. Also, DHEC's Public Health Laboratory tested samples on January 25 and identified a separate case of the same variant.

At this time, there’s no evidence to suggest that the B.1.351 variant causes more severe illness, although it spreads more rapidly than the dominant variants in the United States, which could lead to more cases and hospitalizations.

The B.1.351 variant has been identified in more than 30 countries, but the cases in South Carolina are the first instances of this variant identified in the United States.

Other states have had cases of another variant, called B.1.1.7, originally identified in United Kingdom. A third variant, P.1, which first emerged in Brazil, was detected in Minnesota earlier this week in a person who had recently traveled to that country.

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