South Africa COVID Variant Found for First Time in California, North Carolina and Illinois

A COVID variant first detected in South Africa has been identified for the first time in Illinois, North Carolina and California this week, state health officials announced.

The variant, known as B.1.351, seems to be more transmissible than the original, although there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness. It has now been identified in six U.S. states, which have reported more than a dozen cases in total.

On Thursday, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced the state's first case of a patient infected with the variant—a resident of Rock Island.

"We expected to see more cases of variants detected in Illinois, including the B.1.351 strain," the department's director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement.

"These variants seem to spread more rapidly, which can lead to more cases of COVID-19 and even another surge. Our best path to defeating this virus as quickly as possible remains wearing our masks and getting vaccinated when it's our turn."

Also on Thursday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported its first identification of the B.1.351 variant.

The case involved an adult from central North Carolina who had not recently traveled, according to the department.

California also identified its first cases, with officials reporting one in Santa Clara County and another in Alameda County on Wednesday.

In the Santa Clara case, the individual had recently returned from an international trip with another person. The pair had quarantined themselves for 10 days in their apartment as per state health requirements.

"This is an important example of how public health measures can help break the chain of transmission and why it is critical that we as a community continue to avoid travel and quarantine upon return," said Dr. Sara Cody, director of public health for Santa Clara.

Health officials first detected B.1.351 in the United States toward the end of January in South Carolina. It has since been found in Maryland and Virginia.

After first being identified in South Africa last October, the variant has since been reported in more than 30 countries.

The variant makes up a tiny proportion of confirmed U.S.cases. But only a fraction of positive cases are being sequenced across the country, meaning there may be more B.1.351 infections than official figures show.

The variant has caused some concern because it contains two mutations that may reduce how well antibodies bind to the virus. These mutations could reduce the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, although researchers are still investigating this.

Experts think the two mRNA vaccines authorized for use in the United States—made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna—should still provide good protection against the variant, even if their effectiveness is slightly reduced.

Some recently published studies appear to support this idea, although more research needs to be conducted.

In recent weeks, evidence has emerged to suggest that the South Africa variant reduces the effectiveness of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and AstraZeneca-University of Oxford, all of which have yet to be authorized in the U.S.

Experts think these vaccines should still protect against severe illness and death caused by the variant.

While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was found to be less effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 among clinical trial participants in South Africa—where B.1.351 is dominant—the shot was still 85 percent effective in preventing severe disease across all the regions studied, providing "complete protection against COVID-related hospitalization and death" after 28 days, according to the company.

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COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium
Cars make their way to a COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on February 11. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images