Health authorities have identified the first U.S. cases of Covid-19 caused by a fast-spreading form of the coronavirus initially seen in South Africa, in two people in South Carolina.

Neither person has a history of travel to countries where the variant has been confirmed, and there is no connection between the two people, South Carolina health officials said Thursday. That indicates there has been some local spread of the variant after it arrived in the United States. One case was found in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, and one in the Lowcountry.

The announcement Thursday means that three coronavirus variants that appear to be more contagious and have emerged in recent months have all been documented in the United States. But in a way, the news was no surprise to experts. They had for weeks said the variant that first cropped up in South Africa, called B.1.351, was likely already in the U.S., but this country’s limited system of surveillance for different iterations of the coronavirus meant the variant likely went unnoticed once it was imported via a traveler and could have even been spreading.

Earlier this week, Minnesota health officials confirmed the first Covid-19 case caused by P.1, a variant first identified in Brazil. There have been a few hundred U.S. cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which initially appeared in the United Kingdom.


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All three variants are thought to be more transmissible than earlier forms of the coronavirus and, if left unchecked, could lead to more cases overall by infecting more people faster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that B.1.1.7 could become the dominant form of the coronavirus in the United States by March.

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