NORTH CHARLESTON, SC – South Carolina was already experiencing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the nation when officials learned of an alarming development this week: A new, more worrisome variant of the virus, originally identified in South Africa, was discovered in the state .
Not long after, a second case was discovered with no known link to the first, state officials said Thursday.
None of the patients had a history of travel, officials said, suggesting what many public health experts feared had happened: the new variant of the virus had taken root in the United States.
The arrival of the variant, considered highly contagious and less responsive to vaccines, underscores the shaky strides the country has made in the fight against the virus. Even if millions of people have been vaccinated and the country takes more than 150,000 new coronavirus cases down every day, new mutations in the virus threaten to undermine the country’s poor progress.
“It’s a defining moment,” said Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology in California who studies immunity to infectious diseases. “It is a race with the new variants to vaccinate large numbers of people before these variants spread.”
Pat Kearns, 87, was in her car in a crowded North Charleston parking lot clinic on Friday after receiving her own coronavirus vaccine when it was announced that the new variant had appeared.
“This virus is much faster than us,” said her daughter Teresa. Pat Kearns, a retired radiology nurse, said that even after receiving her two recordings, she had few plans to go straight away. “I’ll stay where I am,” she said. “Stay safe.”
The variant from South Africa known as B.1.351 is one of several mutations that occurred in the wake of the pandemic. Others include a variant from Brazil, which was discovered in Minnesota this week, and one from the UK, which is spreading more widely in the US.
The variants are believed to be more contagious, and the one from South Africa is one of the most worrying as preliminary research suggests vaccines may be less effective against them.
Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech – the companies that make the two vaccines currently available in the US market – have stated that their shots protect a little less against the South African variant, and the companies are considering either a booster shot or develop a new version to get started the variant.
Similarly, Johnson & Johnson, the only major drug company developing a single-dose coronavirus vaccine, announced on Friday that its shot would offer strong protection against Covid-19 if approved, with a 72 percent effectiveness rate in the USA. However, it is less effective against the new variant – in South Africa it is 57 percent.
Although this variant seems to escape antibodies to Covid-19 in part, experts said vaccines should, by and large, still be effective. Research suggests that even if a vaccinated person gets sick, vaccines can help reduce the severity of Covid-19.
“Vaccines are not all or nothing,” said Dr. Crotty, who compared a shot against the virus to braking in a car accident, since even partial braking – or the effectiveness of the vaccine – is far better than none.
However, in a worrying development, the variant may also follow a less clear-cut pattern than the traditional version of Covid-19, which is believed to offer at least short-term immunity to people who have gotten sick. Novavax, a fourth company developing a vaccine, reported that in a small study in South Africa, about a third of the participants were previously infected with Covid-19. However, the results indicated that their previous diseases did not protect them from the new variant.
Although President Biden banned travel from South Africa from Saturday, the variant could spread significantly in the US and possibly make up a large proportion of its infections by April.
Developments landed with a thud in South Carolina, which is experiencing one of the worst eruptions in the country behind only Arizona. “The fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, South Carolina interim director of public health, during a news conference announcing the new cases. “We all need to be more vigilant.”
Answers to your vaccine questions
Am I eligible for the Covid vaccine in my state?
Currently more than 150 million people – almost half of the population – can be vaccinated. But each state makes the final decision on who goes first. The country’s 21 million healthcare workers and three million long-term care residents were the first to qualify. In mid-January, federal officials asked all states to open eligibility to anyone over the age of 65 and adults of any age with medical conditions that are at high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying of Covid-19. Adults in the general population are at the end of the line. If federal and state health authorities can remove bottlenecks in the distribution of vaccines, everyone over the age of 16 is eligible as early as spring or early summer. The vaccine has not been approved in children, although studies are ongoing. It can take months before a vaccine is available to anyone under the age of 16. For the latest information on vaccination guidelines in your area, see your state health website
Is the Vaccine Free?
You shouldn’t have to pay anything out of pocket to get the vaccine, despite being asked for insurance information. If you don’t have insurance, you should still get the vaccine for free. Congress passed law this spring banning insurers from applying cost-sharing such as a co-payment or deductible. It consisted of additional safeguards prohibiting pharmacies, doctors, and hospitals from charging patients, including uninsured patients. Even so, health experts fear that patients will end up in loopholes that make them prone to surprise bills. This could be the case for people who are charged a doctor’s visit fee with their vaccine or for Americans who have certain types of health insurance that are not covered by the new regulations. If you received your vaccine from a doctor’s office or emergency clinic, talk to them about possible hidden costs. To make sure you don’t get a surprise invoice, it is best to get your vaccine at a Department of Health vaccination center or local pharmacy as soon as the shots become more widely available.
Can I choose which vaccine to get?How long does the vaccine last? Do I need another next year?
That is to be determined. It is possible that Covid-19 vaccinations will become an annual event just like the flu vaccination. Or the vaccine may last longer than a year. We’ll have to wait and see how durable the protection from the vaccines is. To determine this, researchers will track down vaccinated people to look for “breakthrough cases” – those people who get Covid-19 despite being vaccinated. This is a sign of a weakening of protection and gives researchers an indication of how long the vaccine will last. They will also monitor the levels of antibodies and T cells in the blood of people who have been vaccinated to see if and when a booster shot might be needed. It is conceivable that people might need boosters every few months, once a year, or just every few years. It’s just a matter of waiting for the data.
Does my employer need vaccinations?Where can I find out more?
Although new infections have slowed from a peak this month, South Carolina is now reporting more new cases and has more people in hospitals than ever in the last year. It also has the highest number of deaths reported in the entire pandemic.
It is unclear what role the new variant could play in spreading it in South Carolina, where officials warned of panic and the contact trace did not indicate “widespread mass transmission”.
However, the new twist only heightened the stakes for the state, where Republican Governor Henry McMaster takes a largely straightforward approach to virus restrictions, keeping restaurants and bars open, and avoiding a nationwide mask order in a strategy he characterizes as good for the economy . South Carolina’s unemployment rate is 4.6 percent below the national average.
However, experts say controlling the spread of the virus is critical to stopping new variants before a possible explosion of cases results in even more hospitalizations and deaths.
“We need to get the pandemic under control,” said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an assistant professor of medicine and an infectious disease physician at the Medical University of South Carolina who often only leaves one shift to treat Covid-19 patients in the hospital, see bars full of people on the way home.
“I don’t want to sit here next year and talk about an even more resistant virus,” she said, adding, “We need to find a new determination to get together and make it to the finish line.”
At Roper St. Francis Healthcare, which owns four hospitals in the southeastern part of the state, 17 percent of the beds were filled with patients with Covid-19 as of Friday, and others were staying in a transit clinic operated by the hospital system. Dozens lined up in cars on a stormy Friday morning to receive the first of two Pfizer vaccine shots that filled a huge parking lot at the North Charleston Performing Arts and Convention Center.
“Demand was off the charts,” said James Bowron, director of operations at Roper St. Francis. “We are overwhelmed with inquiries.”
Lynn Bauman was relieved to get her vaccine on Friday but said she had no plans to change her routine. “We still have to wear our masks and wash our hands,” she said. “It will only be like this for a while.”
As a sign of the nation’s great progress, many people who call now to schedule an appointment in South Carolina may have to wait weeks to get vaccinated. At the North Charleston Clinic, appointments won’t be available until mid-March, when new variants of the virus are expected to be widespread.
Chris Dixon reported from North Charleston and Sarah Mervosh from New York.