COVID-19 variant from South Africa now in the U.S., leaving area doctors concerned

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- A COVID-19 variant from South Africa doctors have been keeping an eye on, has now been identified in the U.S. The two cases were identified in South Carolina, and health officials say there was no known travel history or connection between them.

Area doctors say finding cases of these new variants are concerning because it means there’s already more spreading. The variants from the U.K., Brazil and South Africa, which are now all in the U.S., are more contagious.

“The South African variant as well as the Brazilian variant both have the added problem of being better at evading the immune system,  especially in people who’ve been infected before,” said Dr. Ben Weston, associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and medical director at the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

Area doctors know the new COVID-19 variants infect people more easily, but how widespread are these variants now in the U.S.?

“We don’t know, probably if we’re finding it in one person, it’s in more than one person, because not everybody that tests positive for COVID-19 has their virus sequenced to figure out if it’s one of these variants,” adds Dr. Weston. “All the variants show higher levels of infectivity or contagiousness of the virus, which is extremely concerning for a new spike to come as we’ve seen in other places like the U.K.”

The World Health Organization says they’re watching the evidence carefully on the effectiveness of vaccines when it comes to the new variants.

“This is an area we’re concerned about,” said Dr. Kate O’Brien, WHO director of Immunization Vaccines and Biologicals on Thursday during a social media Q&A.

WHO says the lab studies on effectiveness of the vaccine on new variants involve using blood of a person who’s been vaccinated.

“In that blood, of course, are the antibodies that were induced by the vaccine that is tested against these variants,” said Dr. O’Brien.

Doctors say vaccines should still work well to fight the new variants, but not as effectively. Pfizer and Moderna have started looking into these variants.

“Luckily, it’s so high at about 95-percent, that even a slight loss in effectiveness would still be extremely effective,” Dr. Weston says.

“All of the studies so far are showing that the amount of antibody that is normally produced by the vaccines is still above the level that would manage to protect,” said Dr. O’Brien.

The good news? The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both mRNA vaccines, which experts say makes it easier to make changes to them if needed.

“We can quickly make those changes and roll them out in the vaccine, that’s been more difficult in the influenza vaccine where we have to grow the vaccines in eggs,” said Dr. Kristen Bernard, DVM, professor of pathobiological sciences at UW-Madison.

Dr. Bernard says changes to the vaccine shouldn’t be needed with the three new variants now, but it could be in the future.

She says Moderna is already putting in some of the South Africa variants in preparation.

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