A more contagious strain of COVID-19 that recently emerged in the United Kingdom has been found in South Carolina, the Department of Health and Environmental Control said Saturday.
The coronavirus variant was discovered in an adult from the Pee Dee, DHEC said..
“The arrival of the second SARS-CoV-2 variant in our state is a yet another 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 very limited. We must all remain dedicated to the fight by doing the right things to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”
The person who came down with the UK strain of the coronavirus had recently traveled internationally, DHEC said.
It is common for viruses to undergo changes that result in new versions of themselves, known as variants. Most variants don’t affect how the virus behaves, but some do, health officials said.
Multiple variants of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have emerged independently in recent months and are now circulating globally.
The most notable variants are ones first identified in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa. As of Thursday, all three variants had been identified in the U.S.
Earlier this week, DHEC announced that two cases of a variant first discovered in South Africa had been reported in South Carolina.
While there is no evidence that any of the variants cause more severe illness or increase the risk of mortality, they are believed to be more transmissible, meaning they can spread more quickly through the population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition to differences in ease of transmission, COVID-19 variants also may differ in their ability to be detected by existing diagnostic tests, their susceptibility to current treatments and their capacity to evade natural and vaccine-induced immune responses, according to the CDC.
Experts believe current COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna will protect people against the known variant strains, including the United Kingdom one, but it’s not known precisely how effective they will be, Traxler said.
Moderna announced Monday it was developing booster shots to deal with the emerging variants, after studies found its vaccine had not been as effective, albeit still protective, against the South African variant.
“As we seek to defeat the COVID-19 virus, which has created a worldwide pandemic, we believe it is imperative to be proactive as the virus evolves,” Moderna’s CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement. “Out of an abundance of caution and leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are advancing an emerging variant booster candidate against the variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa into the clinic to determine if it will be more effective … against this and potentially future variants.”
Traxler said Thursday that one big benefit of mRNA vaccines, like the ones developed by Pfizer and Moderna, is they can be modified quickly to be effective against virus variants as they evolve.
What remains to be seen, however, is how quickly the modified booster doses of vaccine can be mass produced and distributed, she said.
Traxler said she suspected the development and production of booster shots to deal with virus variants would be dependent on how prevalent each variant becomes in the U.S.
If booster shots are eventually seen as necessary for protection against the virus, someone who already had received two doses of the Moderna vaccine would likely need only a single booster shot for maximum protection against the variant, Traxler said.
There isn’t evidence the UK variant has spread widely in South Carolina at this point, so residents should rest assured that the existing versions of both vaccines currently on the market are highly effective against the COVID-19 virus.
DHEC said it has been testing random virus samples since last summer to identify any instances of variants and would be increasing the number of samples it sequences going forward.
“We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate,” Dr. Traxler said. “That’s why it’s critical that we vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible and each of us do our part by wearing a mask, staying six feet apart, avoiding crowds, washing our hands, getting tested often, and when it’s our time, getting vaccinated. Science tells us that these actions work to prevent the spread of the virus, no matter the strain.”
Traxler said DHEC would not be changing its health and safety recommendations as a result of the variant’s discovery and said the same standard precautions still apply. South Carolinians should continue doing things to mitigate spread of COVID-19 such as wearing masks, practicing social distancing, washing their hands frequently and avoiding large gatherings.
After the the South African strain was discovered in South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster said he had no plans to impose any further restrictions.
Other states have had cases of the UK strain, called B.1.1.7, and the Brazil strain, called P.1.
Each variant emerged independently and has different characteristics, but all three are believed to spread more easily than the majority of SARS-COV-2 variants.
The B.1.1.7 strain was first identified in December 2020, though British health officials had collected samples of it as early as September.
Health officials said it was unique, as the mutated version of the virus is more contagious than previously identified strains. An epidemiologist at Imperial College London estimated that the virus spreads 50-70% faster than other variants. Research on the strain is ongoing.
By the week of Dec. 9, the variant was responsible for 60% of the cases in London, health experts said.
As of late December, there was no strong evidence that the strain caused more serious symptoms than other strains.
Still, governments across the world locked down travel to and from the United Kingdom.
The strain was first discovered in the United States in the last days of 2020. The man who contracted it lives in Colorado and had no travel history. Public health officials were still conducting an investigation when they announced the discovery.
P.1, the COVID-19 variant from Brazil, was first identified earlier this month in four travelers from Brazil who were testing during routine screening at an airport outside Tokyo, Japan, according to the CDC.
The first known U.S. case involving P.1 was reported Monday in Minnesota. The patient, who became sick during the first week of January, had recently traveled to Brazil, Minnesota health officials said.