South Africa Covid found in South Carolina: ‘We’re in a race against the variants’

The two people from South Carolina have no recent travel history or connections to each other, the state health department says 

Danielle Zoellner
New York
Thursday 28 January 2021 20:24 GMT
Dr Anthony Fauci warns public to not grow complacent with virus as South African variant is detected in US
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The highly transmissible Covid-19 variant initially found in South Africa has been detected in the United States for the first time, infecting two people from South Carolina with no recent travel history. 

There was no known connection between the two cases in South Carolina, the state’s Department of Health and Environment Control (DHEC) said in a news release on Thursday, which suggested the new variant was already circulating through communities. 

"We’re in a race against the variants right now,” Dr Vivek Murthy, President Joe Biden’s nominee for US surgeon general, told The Washington Post

“The faster we’re able to reduce overall rates of infection by taking the public health measures, like masking, distancing, the faster we’re able to vaccinate people, the sooner we’ll be able to turn this pandemic around," he added. 

One adult is from South Carolina's Lowcountry and the other from the Pee Dee region, the state said while withholding other information about the cases to protect the residents’ privacy. 

“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,” said Dr Brannon Traxler, DHEC Interim Public Health Director. “While more Covid-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognising that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together.”

The variant, known as B.1.351, was first detected in South Africa in December and has since spread to at least 30 countries, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).  

Until Thursday, the United States had no known cases of the variant. 

Scientists have not yet determined if the South African variant was deadlier than other variants circulating around  the world, but preliminary data suggests it was more transmissible – which, if true, could lead to increased cases, hospitalisations, and deaths. 

This sparked several countries, including the United States, to issue travel bans against South Africa in an effort to stop the spread of the new variant to other parts of the world. 

The variant is one of three currently circulating that are causing concern among health experts. A variant first detected in Brazil and another from the United Kingdom, both of which were recently found in the United States, were also being closely monitored. 

One key concern among scientists would be the impact of these new variants on coronavirus vaccines. 

Initial research indicated the vaccine might be slightly less effective against the South African variant, which has encouraged Moderna to work on developing a booster for its own Covid-19 jab. 

If the virus changes enough, experts warn, people could contract the novel virus for a second time. 

Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, expressed concern for the new South African variant on Thursday prior to the news it was detected in South Carolina. 

"The one in South Africa, George, troubles me,” Dr Fauci told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “This is something that is now really dominating the South Africa scene, when you look at the vaccines that we have available now, the neutralising antibodies that they induce, so we’re talking about things just in a test tube, when you measure that against the South African isolate it is diminished by multifold in its ability to cover it.” 

“It’s still within the range of what you predict would be protective. But I take no great comfort in that," he added. 

Scientists were not surprised that the virus was mutating. But the new variants prove how necessary it’s become for Covid-19 health guidelines, such as wearing a mask and practising social distancing, to remain in place as countries work to vaccinate their residents. 

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