First case of South African COVID-19 variant identified in Michigan

Mark Hicks Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

State health officials said late Monday they have identified the first case of the South African COVID-19 variant in Michigan.

The case of variant B.1.351 was confirmed by the state Bureau of Laboratories in a boy living in Jackson County, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The state is investigating to figure out the close contacts of the child and whether he has spread the variant.

“We are concerned about the discovery of another variant in Michigan, although it was not unexpected,” Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said in a Monday statement.

“We continue to urge Michiganders to follow a research-based approach by wearing their masks properly, socially distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often, and making a plan to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine once it is their turn. We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 and end this pandemic as quickly as possible.”

A researcher at Aalborg University screens and analyzes positive Danish COVID-19 tests for the new virus variant, in Aalborg, Denmark, Friday,  Jan. 15, 2021.

First detected in early October in South Africa, B.1.351 shares some mutations with the United Kingdom variant known as B.1.1.7.

Like B.1.1.7., the South African variant is expected to be more contagious than the novel coronavirus. The state health department said in a release there is no indication that it results in more severe symptoms or a higher number of deaths than the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has spread across the United States for a year.

But a more contagious variant could result in more hospitalizations and possible deaths, the state health department said.

Pfizer, which makes one of three federally approved COVID-19 vaccines, has said in previously published studies that it found that its vaccine neutralized other more contagious variants first identified in the UK and South Africa.

But some tests suggest the South African variant may be less susceptible to antibody drugs or antibody-rich blood from COVID-19 survivors, both of which help people fight off the virus.

Hawaii's acting State Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said in a statement that a study conducted in South Africa showed that the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine was effective in preventing serious disease requiring hospitalization and in preventing death.

But a new study published in the journal Nature found that Moderna’s two-shot vaccine was found to be 12.4 times less effective against the South African variant, while Pfizer’s two-shot vaccine was determined to have a reduced effectiveness by about 10.3 times, according to The Hill website.

The analysis involved samples of body fluids known as convalescent plasma from volunteers who recovered from a confirmed COVID-19 infection. The neutralizing activity of the vaccine was "significantly lower" against the South African variant, the study found.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that it is unknown how well the existing vaccines protect against B.1.351.

The South African variant has been confirmed in at least 20 other states and jurisdictions in the U.S.

Meanwhile, as of Tuesday, Michigan has also identified 563 cases of the B.1.1.7. variant in 31 jurisdictions, the health department said.

Of the Michigan cases of B.1.1.7., 358 are within the Michigan Department of Corrections. The outbreak started at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia and has spread to 20 employees at the facility.

There are 15 cases in the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township and two at the Duane Waters Health Center in Jackson, MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz said Monday.

Dr. Adam Lauring, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School, said the first case only highlights the importance of surveillance to determine where it's circulating.

“Data is accumulating that the B.1.351 variant might be more transmissible - that it can spread better from person to person," said Lauring, who focuses his research on the rapid evolution of RNA viruses. 

"It has mutations that make it less susceptible to antibody therapies. Early data suggest that vaccines will still be effective against the B.1.351 variant, but more studies are underway.

“The same measures that reduce the spread of COVID-19 - masks, physical distancing, limited indoor gatherings - should be effective against B.1.351.”

There are currently three variants of the novel coronavirus: B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1. No cases of P.1. have been identified in Michigan. Nationally, Florida, Illinois and Maryland are the only states to identify all three variants in their jurisdictions.

Dr. Preeti Malani, UM's chief health officer and a professor of infectious disease, said the current vaccines are effective against the variants although they were tested in different ways. The effectiveness will stand unless someone who is fully vaccinated becomes sick enough to be hospitalized, she said.

"Over time, we probably will have all three variants and the expectation is that we mostly have the B.1.1.7. in large numbers and part of it is because we're looking pretty aggressively for it," Malani said.

As the state approaches 3 million vaccine doses administered, Malani said the good news is that at least half of all seniors in Michigan have received at least one dose.

"The race with this is that can we get enough vaccines in arms before we have issues with variant spreads? It also makes people nervous in the community, " Malani said.

"They see variants and don't want to necessarily move ahead. So, this can set you back, but if we are careful, doing what we can, to all do our share and eventually, hopefully, enough of us are vaccinated that it'll help prevent spread also."