COLUMBIA, S.C. — A new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has been found in the United States for the first time.
Two such cases have been diagnosed in South Carolina, according to the state’s department of health and environmental control.
Public health officials in the state say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notified them late Wednesday that a sample tested at LabCorp was determined to be the B.1.351 variant originally identified in South Africa. The state health department says it also identified a separate case of the same variant on Wednesday.
At this point, officials say there is no known travel history and no connection between these two cases. Both are adults. One is from the state’s low country and one is from the Pee Dee region.
Viruses mutate constantly, and many variants of the coronavirus are circulating around the globe, but scientists are primarily concerned with three that appear to spread more easily.
Other variants first reported in the United Kingdom and Brazil were already confirmed in the U.S. Researchers predicted it was only a matter of time before the variant identified in South Africa reached the U.S. as well.
The CDC released a statement Thursday, saying it's aware of the first documented case of the B.1.351 variant in the U.S. The agency added that it's working to understand the strain, but at this time, it has no evidence that it can cause more severe disease. However, they say preliminary data suggests the variant may spread more easily and quickly than other strains.
Experts believe the existing vaccines work to protect us from the variants, even if we don’t know precisely how effective they are.
"CDC recommends that people avoid travel at this time. However, for those who must travel, additional measures have been put in place to increase safety; especially as COVID-19 variants spread around the world," wrote the agency in its statement. "As of January 26, all air passengers flying into the United States must provide a negative test result or documentation of recovery to the airline before they board a flight to the US. This is one aspect of the comprehensive, science-driven response to reduce the spread of COVID-19 through travel and in the United States."
The CDC is also recommending people wear masks, stay 6 feet apart from others, avoid crowds, ventilate indoor spaces, and wash hands often to prevent the spread of the variants.