At least two cases of the South African Covid-19 variant have been detected in Western New York, the Erie County Department of Health announced Thursday.
The discovery follows the recent identification of two other variants of concern in Erie County samples: B.1.427 and B.1.429, the California variants; and B117, the British variant. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designates strains of the virus as “variants of concern” when they undergo mutations that make them more deadly, more difficult to treat or detect or more contagious.
In preliminary studies, researchers have found that the South African variant, B.1.351, is about 50% more transmissible than previous versions of the virus. The variant has also raised special concerns among scientists and public health officials because existing vaccines provided less protection against it in clinical trials.
The two Erie County cases were identified by the state’s Wadsworth Center laboratory from samples collected last month. They likely do not, however, represent the first or only cases of the South African variant in Western New York. That variant, along with the British and California variants, has grown progressively more common across the U.S. since the beginning of the year, with the largest clusters detected in the Carolinas, Maryland, Virginia and Florida.
One of the two B.1.351 cases found in Erie County reported a recent trip to Florida, according to the county Health Department.
“We can expect that genetic sequencing will identify more samples linked to variants of concern and variants of interest,” Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said in a statement. “The variants of concern found in Erie County are known to have increased transmissibility, meaning the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus is more easily spread between people.”
Average daily infections in the region have more than doubled in the past month, according to state health department data.