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First known US cases of potent South African COVID-19 variant found in South Carolina

First known US cases of potent South African COVID-19 variant found in South Carolina

A healthcare worker prepares a coronavirus test in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Jan 8, 2021. (File photo: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

WASHINGTON: A potent coronavirus variant originating in South Africa and possibly resistant to current vaccines and antibody treatments has been detected for the first time in the United States in two South Carolina patients, health officials said on Thursday (Jan 28).

Medical experts said arrival of the so-called South African variant presents an alarming new challenge in efforts to contain a raging pandemic that has claimed at least 430,000 American lives in 11 months, as authorities struggle to launch the largest mass vaccination campaign in US history.

All viruses mutate frequently, and scientists have identified several variants of the coronavirus found to be more transmissible than the original strain.

But the presence of the South African variant, which has shown no evidence of causing more severe disease, is nonetheless especially concerning because several laboratory studies have found that it reduces vaccine and antibody therapy efficacy.

READ: New COVID-19 variants - Do the UK and South Africa virus strains pose a danger to Singapore?

Another concern, according to Vivek Murthy, nominated to be the next US surgeon general, is that the South African variant may require larger doses of antibody therapeutics for effective treatment.

Confirmation of two patients with that variant in South Carolina comes days after the Minnesota Department of Health identified the first known US case of another highly contagious variant that originated in Brazil.

Yet a third form of the virus from the UK that is more infectious, and associated with higher mortality, made its first US appearance last month in Colorado and has since been detected in at least 28 states.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has predicted the UK variant could become the dominant strain in the United States by March.

"The thing that's troublesome now that we really need to keep our eye on are these variants," Dr Anthony Fauci, the leading US infectious disease specialist, said in an interview on MSNBC. "The one that is of greater concern and that really could be problematic is the mutant that is now dominant in South Africa."

READ: US to escalate tracking of COVID-19 variants as confirmed cases top 25 million

So far, the two-dose vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer with BioNTech appear protective against the South African variant, despite a weaker response.

The companies this week said they are considering making new versions of their shots just in case. Moderna also plans to test giving a third shot of its vaccine to bolster antibody levels.

"EYE OF THE HURRICANE"

The CDC said in a statement that it was aware of the South Carolina cases and noted that there is no evidence the variant is any more deadly than the original virus.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said the two newly discovered cases of the South African variant, a strain known to scientists as B.1.351, appear to be unrelated to one another.

The agency said neither of the two adults who contracted it had a recent travel history that would account for their infections, suggesting the variant was transmitted locally.

The South Africa variant has been detected in more than 30 countries.

READ: Biden to impose COVID-19 travel ban on South Africa; reinstate curbs on visitors from UK, Europe and Brazil

"I'm very worried about the variants, all of them, all have the potential to be much more transmissible than the current version of COVID that we seem to be dealing with in the United States," Murthy said in a Washington Post interview.

The CDC has said the arrival of more transmissible coronavirus variants emphasises the need for rapid rollout of vaccines to limit the ability of the virus to continue mutating.

While the rate of COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations has levelled off across the United States in the past couple of weeks, following a months-long surge that pushed healthcare systems to their limits, Fauci said the country still faced a "very serious issue".

Scientists have warned that another onslaught of infections could loom on the horizon as more transmissible forms of the virus spread before collective immunity can be achieved through widespread vaccination programs.

"Even though the total new cases has gone down from around 250,000 confirmed cases a day to 180,000 a day, that's the eye of the hurricane. The backside is now coming," Dr Peter Hotez, dean of tropical medicine for Baylor College of Medicine, told MSNBC.

He said accelerating immunisations is more urgent than ever with the arrival of the South African variant.

Fauci agreed, saying, "We could have some difficult times that we have to be prepared for."

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Source: Reuters/dv

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