South Carolina has identified 24 cases of new, more transmissible versions of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, signaling that the variants were not fully contained when they were first detected in January.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control reports that as of Feb. 17, South Carolina has at least 21 cases of a variant that first emerged in South Africa and three cases of the variant that traces back to the United Kingdom.
DHEC had previously disclosed only three cases of the variants — two cases of the South Africa virus and one from the United Kingdom. The agency didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether the new cases were linked to each other.
The newly identified cases likely don’t account for the true number of variant cases in the state, however.
Detecting a variant is more complicated than diagnosing a case of COVID-19 because it requires scientists to first decode the genetic material of the virus. Relatively few virus samples undergo that analysis, though DHEC and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently ramped up genome sequencing efforts.
South Carolina in January became the first state to detect the South Africa variant, which still hasn't been found widely in the United States. The variant, officially named B.1.351, has only been found in 10 states, according to the CDC.
In its most recent update, published Feb. 18, the CDC had reported a total of 21 cases of B.1.351. DHEC's disclosure will bring the nationwide total to at least 40, including 15 from the Pee Dee region in South Carolina's northeast corner. Another five have been found in the Lowcountry, which runs from Beaufort and Charleston up to Calhoun County in DHEC's definition.
Meanwhile, the U.K. variant, named B.1.1.7, has made fewer inroads in South Carolina, even as it has spread more widely across the country, reaching all but eight states. The CDC reports more than 1,500 cases across the United States.
B.1.351 and B.1.1.7 are two of the three coronavirus mutations that the CDC has described as "variants of concern" because they appear to spread more readily than older versions of the virus. And new studies have found evidence that COVID-19 vaccines might not elicit as strong of a response against the South African variant, though the vaccines still prevent severe disease and death.
The third variant of concern, first found in Brazil, has not yet been detected in South Carolina. The three variants evolved separately of each other.
Public health officials say the measures that reduce the risk of catching the virus — like wearing a mask and keeping distance from others — still work against the new variants.
“While there is indication that these variants may be more transmissible than the original strain, that doesn’t change our public health recommendations,” said Dr. Linda Bell, South Carolina’s state epidemiologist.
And while the emergence of new variants has raised concerns about increased spread of COVID-19, they don’t appear to have changed the course of the pandemic in South Carolina to date. The number of new cases has fallen steadily since January as the state’s winter wave has crested, although the virus is still widespread.
The state is diagnosing an average of 1,903 new infections every day, which is close to the peak of South Carolina’s summer wave.