Two South Carolina patients are the first in the United States to be diagnosed with a mutated strain of the coronavirus, raising concerns that this more transmissible variant could become dominant here and throughout the country.
There are now a few variants of COVID-19 spreading from different parts of the world. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control announced Thursday that the two patients in South Carolina were diagnosed with the B.1.351 variant, a strain first identified in South Africa about six weeks ago.
President Joe Biden added the African country to a travel ban earlier this week in order to mitigate the spread of the virus, but the restrictions come weeks after the South Carolina patients tested positive in early January. It was only determined this week that they tested positive for this specific new variant.
One patient is from the Lowcountry and the other is from the Pee Dee, according to DHEC, and both are now ”doing well,” according to one health department official. The agency released few other personal details, citing patient privacy, but did say the two cases are not related and neither person had a known travel history.
Though the B.1.351 variant is believed to spread more readily than SARS-CoV-2, it is not known to cause more serious cases of COVID-19. The vaccines currently being administered are also thought to be protective against the new strains, although Moderna, one of the two manufacturers making coronavirus vaccines, says it is now looking into producing a booster shot that would make the inoculation more effective against the South African strain.
But with South Carolina second in the nation in new cases reported per capita, according to a White House task force report, a virus picking up speed is the last thing the state needs as it confronts its worst-yet surge of disease that has killed roughly 6,700 people here. It is spreading so rapidly, DHEC says it has scaled back its contact tracing goals.
"We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate," said Dr. Brannon Traxler, interim public health director for DHEC. She added that the same social-distancing measures that have been proven to work over the last year will also stop the spread of the mutated strain.
Neither DHEC nor the Governor's Office suggested further lockdowns or restrictions on Thursday to prevent further spread of the disease.
"This is important information for South Carolinians to have, but it isn't a reason for panic," Gov. Henry McMaster wrote to his constituents on Twitter about the new strain.
The fact that the two cases have no known travel connection suggests the mutated virus is already spreading in South Carolina. It is impossible to say how prevalent it has already become. Though the state health department processes more than 100,000 tests for COVID-19 each week, DHEC only sequences the genetic material of two dozen samples every week to search for variants, The Post and Courier recently reported.
Traxler said DHEC is steadily increasing the number of samples it runs to find out how prevalent the strain has become. Private labs also test for variants.
Each of the two South Carolinians who tested positive for the B.1.351 variant were diagnosed with COVID-19 at the beginning of January. DHEC acknowledged that it took several weeks to determine that these positive COVID-19 cases were, in fact, a different variant than has ever been detected in the U.S. The agency explained it takes time to sequence the samples to determine if it's an example of one of the variants, and Traxler said those efforts are not as pressing as the diagnostic tests.
"The urgency is still diagnosing somebody with whether they have COVID-19 or not," she said.
The major diagnostics company LabCorp discovered one of the two cases in its tests, and DHEC was notified late Wednesday. The agency found the other positive case, also on Wednesday, through routine sampling it did on Monday.
Variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 began showing up internationally late last year, according to the World Health Organization.
There are three the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is concerned about, and with South Carolina's news Thursday, all of them have been found somewhere in the United States.
A strain that first showed itself in the United Kingdom on Dec. 14 has become dominant in that country and led to renewed lockdowns. During a White House briefing Wednesday, the new director of the CDC said 308 cases of the U.K. variant have been confirmed in 26 states.
South Carolina wasn't one of them.
A first case of the Brazilian variant in the United States was announced on Tuesday. A person who traveled from the Latin American country to Minnesota tested positive for that strain.
The CDC also says the lab-based tests that have become the standard for health departments and hospitals should be able to detect the variant and return a positive result.
Those results won't indicate whether the individual has the variant strain or not, only that they’re positive or negative for COVID-19. Further lab testing would be required to find out, said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, a member of the Medical University of South Carolina’s infectious disease faculty.
Knowing the strain is present is important information for researchers studying the spread of the disease.
While it may not make a difference to the individual which strain of the coronavirus they catch, Kuppalli said it is more important than ever to follow social-distancing guidelines, practice good hand hygiene and wear a mask. Those measures will work regardless, and, if practiced aggressively, could prevent the variant from becoming dominant here.
"All you have to do is look at what's happening in England, and be worried that that's what's going to happen in other parts of the world," she said.
In South Carolina, about one in 13 people say they are not wearing a mask while in public, according to research by Carnegie Mellon University. The results, from thousands of surveys of Facebook users in every state, have steadily improved over time, but still put South Carolina slightly below the national average.