State health officials have detected Maryland’s first case of the South African variant of the coronavirus in the Baltimore area, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Saturday.
Known as the B.1.351 variant, the mutation may be more contagious but is not believed to cause more serious illness, say researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The variant continues to spread through South Africa, and the first U.S. case was reported Thursday in South Carolina.
The South African variant has concerned doctors in Maryland. Vaccines in development by Novavax and Johnson & Johnson have proven less effective against the variant. Marylanders have been receiving doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both of which were developed before the variant spread widely.
Some laboratory studies suggest people who receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines produce antibodies that neutralize the South African variant. But without clinical trials, researchers can’t be sure these two vaccines will be effective.
“It’s worrisome to me that the trial results from the Novavax and Johnson & Johnson [vaccines] show substantially lower efficacy in the South African variant, suggesting that even the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may have lower efficacy,” said Dr. William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The real proof will be if we start seeing people who got two doses get infected.”
Further, CDC researchers found evidence that some of the best treatment for COVID-19, monoclonal antibodies, aren’t effective against the South African variant.
In Maryland, officials are working to find and notify anyone who has had contact with the infected person.
“The case is an adult living in the Baltimore metro area, who has no recent international travel,” said Mike Ricci, the spokesman for Hogan.
That suggests the variant is already spreading in Maryland, and it may have been for some time, Moss said.
“This is not someone who just came from South Africa,” the doctor said. “It’s quite possible that it has been circulating in the United States and in Maryland for weeks if not months.”
With his announcement Saturday, Hogan also urged Marylanders to continue to keep their distance from one another, wear masks and wash their hands. Such precautions remain the best way to stop the spread of any variant, researchers say.
The South African is the second variant detected in Maryland. The B.1.1.7 — known as the U.K. variant — was confirmed in the state Jan. 12. Since then, at least seven people in Maryland contracted the U.K. variant, which is believed to be widespread in this country.
The U.K. variant is also considered more contagious than COVID-19, but CDC researchers say there’s no evidence the vaccines are less effective against it.
During a news conference Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said the country must be prepared to face even more.
“This is a wake-up call to all of us that we will be dealing — as the virus uses its devices to evade pressure, particularly immunological pressure — that we will continue to see the evolution of mutants,” he said. “That means that we, as a government, the companies, all of us that are in this together, will have to be nimble to be able to just adjust readily to make versions of the vaccine that actually are specifically directed toward whatever mutation is actually prevalent at any given time.”
Yet another strain emerged this week in the U.S. A case of the P.1 variant, first detected in Japan among travelers from Brazil, was detected in Minnesota. CDC researchers have found evidence suggesting antibodies from a COVID-19 infection and vaccines may not be able to neutralize the Brazil variant.
Recent weeks have brought a decline in the number of new coronavirus cases reported daily in Maryland. But Moss said the arrival of the South African variant should remind everyone to remain careful.
“We’ve been in this pattern before: cases start coming down, and we start opening things back up — and we’re back [to high rates of infection],” he said. “A little fear in the public might not be a bad thing.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Hallie Miller and Dan Rodricks contributed to this article.