South African variant of COVID-19 confirmed in Houston area – Houston Chronicle

The likely faster-spreading variant of COVID-19 first detected in South Africa has arrived in the Houston area, according to Houston Methodist Hospital.

The hospital system said it found the region’s first case of the troubling strain on Saturday while sequencing the genomes of positive test results. It also found two cases of the variant first discovered in the United Kingdom. The first U.K. variant case in the Houston area was confirmed in early January.

Early evidence has shown that both variants may spread faster than the currently predominant strain. More than 600 cases of the U.K. strain have been reported in 33 states, while Texas becomes only the fourth state to confirm a case involving the South African variant, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maryland has three cases, South Carolina has two and Virginia has one.

The infected person is a Fort Bend County man, who tested positive weeks ago and has recovered from the illness, said Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson Minter, director of Fort Bend County’s Health & Human Services Department. The patient had traveled domestically in December before his diagnosis and grew ill a few days after his return to Fort Bend. His household members have tested negative, and he did not work while infected so there was no exposure at his job, Minter said.

Still, Minter said she would not be surprised to learn the South Africa variant was spreading through the community.

“I think it’s important to note that this event occurred several weeks ago and, basically, what we’ve been doing all along will continue to protect us as we wait for our turn with the vaccine,” Minter said. “We continue to wear our masks, we continue to distance, and we continue to practice good hand hygiene. That will protect us from COVID, whatever variant we come in contact with.”

The U.K. variant cases involved two Houston men, one of whom is in his 50s and now is hospitalized with the virus.

Dr. David Persse, the Houston health authority, said the latter cases are evidence that the U.K. strain is here and spreading through the community, and they serve as a reminder to remain vigilant.

He said contact tracers have not been able to tie new cases to them yet, but they are more recent than the Fort Bend County case. Health workers have found “very low levels” of the U.K. variant in the city’s wastewater sampling program, he added.

“The bottom line is, and this is really no surprise, the U.K. variant was not just that one case a month ago found in Harris County,” Persse said. “That gentleman likely got infected here. It’s here. It’s now popping up on the Methodist radars, it’s now popping up in hospitals, it’s now popping up in the wastewater.”

Dr. Wesley Long, who works with the Methodist sequencing effort, said there is no evidence from the clinical trials of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that they are less effective against the variants, especially the U.K. strain. The CDC has said some preliminary evidence shows the Moderna vaccine may be less effective, but more study is needed.

Long said there is also limited evidence that certain other vaccines and therapies that target the spike protein of COVID-19 may be less effective against the South African variant, though they still should provide benefits to most people.

South Africa recently halted its use of a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford after evidence emerged showing it did not protect against mild or moderate illness from the variant.

The CDC says “rigorous and increased compliance” with mitigation strategies such as social distancing and wearing masks is needed to combat the spread of the virus.

“These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19,” the CDC warns on its website. “An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.”

Rebecca Fischer, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M University, said news of the variants’ arrival underscores the need to regain vigilance in practicing mitigation strategies. The new strains have grown to dominate the pandemic in parts of Europe, she said, and the CDC has predicted that likely will be the case in the United States, as well.

“We should be doing things differently. We should be doing all the things that public health guidance has told us to do all along,” Fischer said, noting that people have not followed them effectively enough. “These new variants are potentially the tip of the iceberg if we don’t get the spread under control.”

People need to ensure they are wearing their masks, keeping their distance and moving gatherings outdoors if they are held at all, Fischer said.

They also must understand that many people who do not know they have the virus are spreading it.

“This really comes down to every person taking responsibility for their actions,” Fischer said.

dylan.mcguinness@chron.com

twitter.com/dylmcguinness