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South African COVID-19 variant found in South Carolina, first cases in U.S.

These are the first two known cases of this variant in the United States.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The first two cases of the South African variant of the coronavirus have been detected in South Carolina, state health officials confirmed Thursday, the first known cases of this variant in the United States.

South Carolina public health officials says they were notified late Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of a South Carolina sample that was tested at LabCorp and determined to be the B.1.351 variant originally identified in South Africa. DHEC's Public Health Laboratory also tested samples on Jan. 25 and Wednesday identified a separate case of the same variant. 

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At this point in time, health officials say there is no known travel history and no connection between these two cases. Both are adults; one from the Lowcountry and one from the Pee Dee region of the state. To protect their privacy, no further information will be released, DHEC says.

"There are no additional precautions that we have advised these individuals to take as the standard precautions that apply for anyone who is infected with COVID-19 are the same regardless if it is this variant or the normal SARS-CoV-2 virus," Traxler said.

The people were actually tested earlier in the month, Dr. Brannon Traxler DHEC Interim Public Health Director said, but it took until now to do the sequencing. The two persons are said to be out of their contagious period at this point.

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 important sampling to identify any other changes in the virus.

In neighboring North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris reacted to the South Carolina news, saying, "Routine testing for COVID-19 does not screen for the different strains of the virus. We know we have the B.1.17 variant in our community and we know that the African variant has been identified in South Carolina. The identification of cases and the treatment they may need will not differ based on the strain of the virus. We are not testing or screening for these variant strains. We can assume that they are present in our community."

DHEC says experts agree that existing vaccines work to protect people from this variant, but it's not known precisely how effective they are. They say at this time, there’s no evidence to suggest that the B.1.351 variant causes more severe illness.

“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. “While more COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together.”

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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. Both variants originally detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa spread easier and quicker than the majority of SARS-CoV-2 variants.

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.

“We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate,” Dr. Traxler said. “That’s why it’s critical that we all continue to do our part by taking small actions that make a big difference. 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.”

The CDC said they were aware of the tests and were working with state officials. They recommended people heed coronavirus protections, and are asking people to avoid travel.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster tweeted that "this is important information for South Carolinians to have, but it isn't a reason for panic." 

He then tweeted out several information graphics.

DHEC says in coordination with the CDC, they will continue to watch out for COVID-19 variants. Public health officials will provide more information as it becomes available.

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine go to scdhec.gov/vaxfacts. For the latest information about COVID-19, go to scdhec.gov/COVID19.

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