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South African COVID-19 Variant Detected In U.S.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Public health officials in this country have been worried about this for a while now, and it has happened. A variant of the coronavirus discovered in South Africa has been detected in the U.S. for the first time. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has details.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The variant was detected in two adults in two different parts of South Carolina. Dr. Brannon Traxler of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control announced the discovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRANNON TRAXLER: The COVID-19 virus variant that first emerged in South Africa had been detected in our state. The arrival of any COVID-19 variant in South Carolina, including this one, is yet another reminder that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over.

STEIN: Both of the infected people recovered, but neither is known to have any history of travel or any connection to each other. That suggests that the virus has been spreading silently in South Carolina and probably elsewhere in the United States. Dr. David Relman is a microbiologist at Stanford University.

DAVID RELMAN: What's humbling and disheartening is the likelihood that the virus is already elsewhere in the country. And as to exactly where and in whom, we just don't know.

STEIN: Another more contagious strain first discovered in the U.K. has already been found in more than 28 states, and a third more transmissible variant first spotted in Brazil was found in Minnesota earlier this week. And these strains aren't just worrying because they spread faster. Some drugs don't seem to work as well against them, either. And perhaps most concerning of all, the vaccines being used in the U.S. might be less effective against them, too. In fact, the drug company Novavax announced yesterday that its new vaccine appears to be far less effective against the South African variant.

So officials say all this means it's more important than ever for everyone to double down on everything we've been hearing for a year now. Wear those masks. Wash those hands. And stay away from people who don't live with, especially indoors. That's the best way to keep these new variants from sparking yet another deadly surge.

Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "SHOT INTO THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.

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