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January 28, 2021

First U.S. cases of South African coronavirus variant detected

The virus is believed to be more transmissible but is not known to cause more severe illness

A highly contagious coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa has been detected in South Carolina, marking its first known U.S cases. 

The variant was detected in samples from two adults with no clear travel histories, South Carolina health officials said. They are from different parts of the state, suggesting there already is community spread of the variant. 

The presence of the variant shows "the fight against this deadly virus is far from over," said Dr. Brannon Traxler, the state's interim public health director. "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." 

The South African variant, formally known as B.1.351, was first discovered in October and has since spread to at least 20 other countries. Other known variants, including those first discovered in the United Kingdom and in Brazil, also have been detected in the U.S. 

Health experts believe the South African variant is more transmissible than previous forms of the coronavirus — just like the U.K. and Brazilian variants. But there is no evidence suggesting it causes more severe illnesses. 

Earlier this week, Moderna released data showing its COVID-19 vaccine protects against the U.K. and South African variants, but the South African variant is more resistant. It did not have data on its vaccine's ability to neutralize the Brazilian variant. 

Pfizer's vaccine only lost a bit of effectiveness against the South African variant, according to a lab study released Thursday by the drugmaker. 

The coronavirus variants can't be detected through the standard PCR or rapid antigen tests, but require additional genome sequencing tests.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control detected the first South African case late Wednesday and notified South Carolina health officials. A state lab identified the second case, according to CNBC. 

The CDC is tracking cases of the variants by state on this map.

The first case of the Brazilian variant in the U.S. was found Monday in Minnesota. That case involved a person who had recently traveled to Brazil. The U.K. variant has been detected in 28 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

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