COLUMBIA, S.C. (WMBF) – The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control announced Thursday the detection of two cases associated with the SARS-CoV-2 variant that first emerged recently in South Africa.
According to state health officials, these are the first two cases of this variant in the United States. The cases were identified in the Pee Dee and Lowcountry regions, but health officials have not said exactly which county the cases are located in. They added that the cases had no known travel history and no known connection to each other.
S.C. public health officials were notified late Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a South Carolina sample that was tested at LabCorp and determined to be the B.1.351 variant originally identified in South Africa.
Additionally, DHEC’s Public Health Laboratory tested samples on Jan. 25 and Jan. 27 identified a separate case of the same variant, a DHEC press release stated. Since June 2020, DHEC’s public health laboratory has been performing tests of random samples in order to identify any instances of the variant viruses.
DHEC’s public health laboratory will continue to conduct this sampling to identify any other changes in the virus.
DHEC’s interim Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler stated that the two people were tested very early this month and it is her understanding that they are doing well and both are out of their contagious periods. She added that they don’t have concerns based on their contact tracing of the individuals, and also aren’t concerned about mass widespread transmission of the variant at this time.
When asked during a news briefing on Thursday why we are just now learning about the variant, Traxler explained that it takes a while for labs to go through the sequencing process to identify variants.
There are concerns that the South African variant could spread more quickly than the original virus. Traxler said that other countries have seen the UK and Brazilian variants which have been seen to spread easier and quicker. She added that preliminary studies and modeling suggest that the different variants could be 50-60% faster spreading but there is still data that’s being collected.
According to DHEC, experts agree that existing vaccines work to protect people from this variant, even if it’s currently not known precisely how effective they are.
“At this time, there’s no evidence to suggest that the B.1.351 variant causes more severe illness,” according to DHEC.
The B.1.351 variant has been identified in more than 30 countries but these are the first cases of this variant identified in the United States. Other states have had cases of another, called B.1.1.7, originally identified in United Kingdom.
The South Africa and United Kingdom variants emerged independently from each other and have different characteristics. Most variants do not change how the virus behaves and many disappear, the release stated.
Traxler said that the arrival of any COVID variant in South Carolina is another reminder that the fight against the virus is far from over. She added that we must remain vigilant and take steps that we have been doing for nearly a year now, which is wearing face maks, staying six feet apart and avoiding large gatherings.