Health officials in the US state of South Carolina announced on Thursday that the new South Africa variant of the coronavirus has been detected in two people in the United States.
These are the first known cases of the more infectious South Africa variant in the US.
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Officials said there was no known travel history and no connection between the two cases, both in adults. Authorities did not release additional information for privacy reasons, however, the two cases suggest the South Africa strain is already spreading within local communities.
“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, public health director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The South Africa strain was first identified in December and appears to be spread more rapidly. It carries mutations that allow it to bind more easily to human cells. There’s no data yet suggesting the South Africa strain is more deadly.
The South Africa variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is one of three mutations that have emerged recently, causing concern among public health authorities worldwide.
“At this time, we have no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease. Like the UK and Brazilian variants, preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants,” the CDC said in a statement on Thursday.
A mutation of the virus discovered in the United Kingdom last year appears to be both more infectious and deadlier, according to authorities. A third variant discovered in Brazil also appears more infectious.
The UK variant has been discovered in more than 20 US states and could become the dominant strain in the US by the end of March, top US scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health have said.
Scientists are beginning to assess how existing vaccines affect the new strains of the virus.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said in a US television interview on Sunday it is unclear whether the vaccines now being distributed will be more or less effective against new strains.
“When we look at the effect of the chain, this lineage that is the UK lineage that is in at least 20 states in the US, the vaccine-induced antibodies … seem to continue to be protective against the mutant strain,” Fauci told Fox News on January 24.
The virus mutates as it spreads and scientists have warned that surges in infections will generate new strains of the virus.
“We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate,” Dr Traxler said in a statement.
“That’s why it’s critical that we all continue to do our part by taking small actions that make a big difference,” she said.
“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.”
More than 430,000 people have died in the US from COVID-19 since the pandemic started and the new Biden administration has estimated the death toll will reach 500,000 by the end of February.
President Joe Biden announced intention to speed up the delivery of vaccines to Americans in coming weeks. announced on Tuesday the US government would buy 200 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for delivery by mid-September.
At the same time, improving infection and hospitalisation numbers have prompting governors in some US states to move cautiously to loosen restrictions on businesses where people gather.
Michigan, Illinois, California, Oregon, North Dakota and the city of Washington, DC, have recently eased restrictions on dining and other activities.