The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today confirmed the first US cases of B1.351, a variant of COVID-19 first discovered in South Africa, in South Carolina.
In other US news, CDC experts discuss a rare COVID-related syndrome in children, a Johns Hopkins expert highlights hospital oxygen shortages, and Novavax reports good results for its vaccine.
Variant virus in South Carolina
According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), the variant was detected in two people with no known travel history and no contact with one another.
"The arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 variant in our state is an important reminder to all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over," said Brannon Traxler, MD, DHEC Interim Public Health Director. "While more COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited."
The CDC said today it is still early days for understanding the implications of the variants now being identified across the globe. "At this time, we have no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease," the agency said. "Like the UK and Brazilian variants, preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants."
Existing vaccines are expected to offer at least some level of protection against the variants. Earlier this week, Minnesota reported the first US case of variant P.1 (known as the Brazilian variant) in someone who had recently traveled to that country. And more than 26 states have reported more than 300 cases of B117, a variant first detected in the United Kingdom in December.
Because of these variants, CDC enacted strict travel regulations this week. "CDC recommends that people avoid travel at this time. However, for those who must travel, additional measures have been put in place to increase safety; especially as COVID-19 variants spread around the world," the CDC said. "As of January 26, all air passengers flying into the United States must provide a negative test result or documentation of recovery to the airline before they board a flight to the US."
The US reported 152,478 new COVID-19 cases yesterday and 3,943 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online tracker. There are 107,444 COVID-19 patients in US hospitals, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
In total, the United States has had 25,708,124 COVID-19 cases, including 431,882 deaths.
CDC: Link between variants, MIS-C unclear
In related news, CDC officials told reporters this week it's unclear if variant strains of the virus are more likely to cause multi-system inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) in children, a rare but serious complication of COVID-19 infection.
The CDC says that as of the end of December, it had reports of 1,659 cases of MIS-C in the United States, among 2.68 million pediatric infections, as tracked by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
MIS-C usually occurs at least 3 weeks after a child has been infected with COVID-19 and can follow asymptomatic infections.
Expert warns about national oxygen supply
Eric Toner, MD, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, issued a warning on the looming crisis of medical oxygen shortages facing many US hospitals in cities with 'crisis' levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
California, Texas, and New York have all reported shortages of wall oxygen or portable oxygen at various points during the pandemic. Toner explained that high-flow oxygen therapy, which uses roughly 5 to 10 times the oxygen as a mechanical ventilator, has become one of the preferred standardized treatments for COVID-19 patients, but oxygen pipes in many older hospitals are not able to accommodate the increased flow demands.
Toner offered several solutions to increase oxygen supply, including determining if the Defense Production Act could help boost production quickly.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been on the decline since Jan 12, when they were at 131,326, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of COVID Tracking Project data.
Novavax vaccine proves effective against variants
Finally today, Novavax, a Maryland-based vaccine manufacturer, announced its COVID-19 vaccine candidate (NVX-CoV2373) was 89.3% effective in preventing disease in a UK-based phase 3 trial, where more than 50% of the cases seen were attributable to the B117 variant.
The company also announced results from a phase 2b trial in South Africa, where the vaccine was shown to be 60% effective in preventing mild, moderate, and severe infections when 90% of cases were attributed to variant B1.351.
"NVX-CoV2373 is the first vaccine to demonstrate not only high clinical efficacy against COVID-19 but also significant clinical efficacy against both the rapidly emerging UK and South Africa variants," said Stanley C. Erck, the president and chief executive officer of Novavax said in a press release.
Novavax said the company plans to immediately begin clinical development on a vaccine specifically targeted to B1.351. Some countries, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have already bought millions of doses of the company's vaccine.