The first known case of the South Africa COVID-19 variant has been detected in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced Friday.
This strain, also known as B.1.351, is distinctive from the United Kingdom or B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in our state on Jan. 12.
The South Africa variant was discovered circulating in South Africa back in October of 2020. Researchers conclude the new strains spread more rapidly and easily than the original COVID-19 strain. It remains unclear, though, if the new strain causes worse symptoms.
The DHS notes there is some evidence suggesting the South Africa variant may affect how some antibodies respond to the virus. All three authorized vaccines in the U.S. effectively reduce the risk of COVID-19 for all of the circulating variants, the DHS stated.
The DHS says the South Africa variant was identified through ongoing surveillance and whole-genome sequencing. The department did not say where the strain was found in the state.
"It's obviously very concerning because we've heard about it for the last several months in other predominant parts of the country, and now we have it here in our own backyard," Dr. Ignace said.
Dr. Lyle Ignace is the CEO of the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center in Milwaukee. He said the emergence of variants is why he keeps reminding patients to continue wearing masks and social distancing.
"Until we truly know the true effectiveness of all three vaccines that are out now, we won't really know for months now how impactful these new variants will be," Dr. Ignace said.
All viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19, change through mutation, a reality DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk wanted to remind residents in the statement:
"It is important to remember that new variants are expected to occur over time. Here in Wisconsin, whole genome sequencing of positive specimens from COVID-19 cases is done on a regular basis. Because these variants may spread more easily than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, mask wearing, staying home, physically distancing, and washing your hands continues to be crucial."
The Indian Health Center will host a vaccine clinic for all enrolled tribal members and descendants ages 18 and older who live in Milwaukee County on March 9 through 11.
"When we do call individuals and say you're eligible for the vaccine, they're almost elated," Dr. Ignace said. "And when they do come and get their vaccine, you can see the relief come off their shoulders."