Health authorities in South Carolina said Thursday they have identified two people who were infected with a coronavirus variant that was first detected in South Africa and could evade some treatments.

The two adults haven’t traveled to South Africa and aren’t connected to one another, authorities said, suggesting that the variant, known as B.1.351, is potentially circulating in the community.

The finding means that all three “variants of concern” identified recently by scientists around the world have now been found in the U.S., an outcome public-health scientists had expected in light of international travel and the highly transmissible nature of Covid-19.

The South African variant has been found in more than 30 countries, including the U.K. and Belgium.

Scientists are racing to determine how well Covid-19 vaccines and drugs work against the new variants. Preliminary research suggests that the mutations’ effects on vaccine efficacy are modest but that some treatments known as monoclonal antibodies might not work as well against the South African variant.

As new coronavirus variants sweep across the world, scientists are racing to understand how dangerous they could be. WSJ explains. Illustration: Alex Kuzoian/WSJ

South Carolina health authorities said they were notified Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a case of the B.1.351 strain in their state, before separately identifying a second case in a different part of the state.

South Carolina has been testing Covid-19 test samples randomly since June for possible mutations, health officials there said.

The arrival of the new variant “is an important reminder to all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” said Dr.

Brannon Traxler,

the state’s interim public-health director. “Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now.”

Tracking Covid-19 Variants

The identification of the new variant “is an important reminder to all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” said

Brannon Traxler,

the state’s interim public-health director. “Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now.”

The CDC said it is studying the South African variant. There is no evidence yet that the strain causes more-severe illness, but preliminary data suggest that—like the variant first found in the U.K.—it might be more transmissible than more common strains, the agency.

The CDC has recommended that Americans avoid international travel. All air passengers abroad must now show airlines a negative Covid-19 test result or proof of recovery before boarding a flight to the U.S., the agency said.

“CDC’s recommendations for slowing the spread—wearing masks, staying at least 6 feet apart from others, avoiding crowds, ventilating indoor spaces, and washing hands often—will also prevent the spread of this variant,” the agency said.

The CDC and laboratories around the country are boosting surveillance for the new variants.

Why the New Covid-19 Variants Could Be More Infectious

Mutations in the virus’s appendage have created potentially more infectious versions of the pathogen

Labs have identified at least 315 cases in 28 U.S. states of a variant first identified in the U.K. CDC modelers project that it is likely to become the dominant strain in the U.S. by late March if public-health measures aren’t taken to slow it.

Minnesota public-health authorities said earlier this week that they had found a case of Covid-19 caused by a variant first identified in Brazil. The person became ill in the first week of January following a trip to Brazil.

A

Pfizer Inc.

lab study found that mutations in the variants from South Africa and the U.K. had only small impacts on the effectiveness of antibodies generated by its Covid-19 vaccine. The findings are preliminary and were posted Wednesday on an online server that publishes scientific articles before they have been peer reviewed.

Moderna Inc.

said this week that its Covid-19 vaccine appears to protect against the new variants. But the company said that as a precaution it would test a booster shot and develop a new vaccine targeting the variant first found in South Africa.

Preliminary research in South Africa showed that the new variant there was either entirely resistant to antibodies from an earlier infection, or the antibodies were far less able to stop the virus.

Eli Lilly & Co.

said the South African variant appears to be resistant to one Covid-19 monoclonal antibody treatment that it makes, but scientists say a drug consisting of a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies made by

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.

should still be effective because only one of its two antibodies is affected by the variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser, said current Covid-19 vaccines should still be effective against new variants of the virus, and the U.S. could approach a “degree of normality” by fall if most of the country is vaccinated by summer. Photo: Al Drago/Zuma Press

Laboratory tests on the efficacy of antibodies produced in response to infection or a vaccine only give researchers a partial picture of immunity, said

Vineet Menachery,

a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, who is studying coronavirus variants and was one of the co-authors of the new Pfizer study. The human immune system “responds to changes [in the virus] as well. It constantly evolves,” he said. If people were reinfected, which appears to be rare so far, their immune system should be able to attack new versions of the virus and develop immunity to them, he added.

The early laboratory tests scientists are doing to assess the variant’s susceptibility to the immune system also typically don’t assess defenses beyond antibodies that can help the body fend off pathogens, he and others said.

The South African variant has mutations in proteins on the virus’s surface that are important for helping it infiltrate cells. One particular mutation is in the spike protein, which attaches to another protein on the surface of human cells, Dr. Menachery said. The spike protein is a key target for antibodies, in part because it is exposed and easy to reach, he said.

Write to Betsy McKay at betsy.mckay@wsj.com and Daniela Hernandez at daniela.hernandez@wsj.com

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