Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan has announced that the South African coronavirus variant has been found in a state patient. The infected individual is an adult from the Baltimore area. Since the person does not have a history of international travel, community transmission is the reason for the infection. Maryland then implemented contact tracing methods to identify people the infected person came into contact with for testing and quarantining.
“State health officials are closely monitoring the B.1.351 variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the state… We strongly encourage Marylanders to practice extra caution to limit the additional risk of transmission associated with this variant. Please continue to practice standard public health and safety measures, including mask-wearing, regular hand washing, and physical distancing,” Hogan said in a statement.
Uncertainty about the effectiveness of current vaccines against the SA variant
The governor informed everyone that even though the B.1351 variant is more transmissible than other coronavirus strains, it does not make it more severe or raise death chances. Hogan is apprehensive as to whether the current vaccines will be fully effective against the South African variant. But he said that initial evidence seems to promise that the vaccines will likely offer some amount of protection. The first case of infection from the South African strain in the U.S. was reported a couple of days ago in South Carolina.
An updated pandemic forecast by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) that includes the fast-spreading variants, like those from South Africa, states that an additional 25,000 Americans could die by May 1, 2021. That would increase the death toll to 594,000.
Since the current death toll is 452,000, it would mean that 142,000 more American citizens will die in the next three months. The death toll could even climb to 620,000 if the variant strains manage to spread throughout the country.
“What we’re seeing is sobering and will require us to continue taking this pandemic very seriously… Getting vaccines out quickly is essential, and masks are still one of the best tools we have to keep transmission low and avoid the worst possible outcome. People will need to continue taking precautions even once they are vaccinated because of the potential for more contagious variants to spread,” Christopher Murray, the director of IHME, said in a statement.
The institute predicts that only 39 percent of the U.S. population will be vaccinated by the start of May, which is not enough for herd immunity. It warned that vaccine hesitancy could act as an obstacle to achieving herd immunity.
The South African variant has a mutation called E484K that is known to reduce antibody recognition. That allows the virus to bypass any immune protection that has been provided to a person from prior vaccination or infection. Initial studies from Moderna and Pfizer have shown that both vaccines protect against the South African strain to a limited extent.
Vaccines from Janssen and Novavax offer even less protection. The existing vaccines will have to be tweaked to make them more effective against the strain. However, this could take a few months, during which time other, more powerful variants might emerge that overtake the South African strain. Moderna has announced that it has developed a vaccine for the South African variant, which is being advanced into a phase one study.