South African Covid Variant Detected for the First Time in U.S.

Two cases of the coronavirus variant that first raised alarms in South Africa have been found in South Carolina, marking the first confirmed instance of the mutation in the U.S.

The arrival of the South Africa variant, known as B.1.351, follows the appearances of separate mutations spawned in the U.K. and Brazil. The U.K. variant has been found in more than 20 American states. The Brazil variant was identified for the first time in the U.S. this week, in a Minnesota resident who recently returned from a trip to that country.

Federal and company officials have said existing vaccines work against both the U.K. and South Africa variants. Early evidence suggests the South Africa variant -- like the U.K. mutation -- may be more transmissible, but there’s no data yet it can cause more serious illness, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday in a statement.

The news “is an important reminder to all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” said Brannon Traxler, the state’s interim health director. He noted that supplies of Covid-19 vaccines remain limited.

“Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now,” he said.

The South Africa variant is worrisome because it contains multiple mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to infect human cells. One of those mutations, called E484K, is of particular concern and may help the virus resist vaccines and antibody treatments.

It raises the possibility that the virus could continue to mutate in a way that makes vaccines less effective over time, and that companies will have to quickly and repeatedly develop booster shots to deal with these new mutations.

More Resistant

A study by researchers at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University released as a pre-print on bioRxiv.org found that the South Africa strain is “markedly more resistant” to being neutralized by convalescent plasma. It also concluded that the existing vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were 6.5 to 8.6 times less potent against the strain.

Both Pfizer Inc. and its partner, BioNTech SE, as well as Moderna Inc. have said their own results indicate their existing messenger RNA vaccines should still work against the South Africa strain, despite the reduced potency.

Nonetheless, Moderna said earlier this week it plans to develop and test a third shot booster against the South Africa variant, and Pfizer’s chief executive officer also said his company is starting the development of a booster against the new mutations.

Monitoring Issues

The finding of the South Africa variant in the U.S. comes at a time when the federal government is facing an uphill struggle in gearing up to monitor Covid-19 variants.

While the Biden administration is promising to boost the country’s sequencing efforts, it won’t be easy. The U.S. system now in place includes a scattered constellation of academic, commercial and public health labs that typically are both underfunded and under-resourced.

The two South Carolina cases emerged in adults who live in the state’s Lowcountry and Pee Dee regions, and were detected by testing done by Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings and the state’s public health laboratory.

There is currently “no known travel history and no known connection between these two cases,” the state’s health department said.

The CDC has recommended people don’t travel, but those who do and fly into the U.S. must have a negative Covid-19 test result as of Tuesday.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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