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What we know about the South African coronavirus variant found in Mass.

Christopher Furlong/Getty

Massachusetts officials on Tuesday confirmed the state’s first case of the coronavirus variant that originated in South Africa. Here’s what we know about the variant, officially dubbed B.1.351, which was detected in a woman in her 20s living in Middlesex County.

1. It’s highly contagious — “The B.1.351 variant is known to spread easily,” the state Department of Public Health said Tuesday. “The Massachusetts State Public Health Laboratory is working in collaboration with many healthcare and academic partners to quickly identify variants of concern by sequencing a subset of positive samples.”

2. It first emerged as early as October — “This variant was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples dating back to the beginning of October 2020, and cases have since been detected outside of South Africa, including the United States,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.


The variant was also discovered in Zambia in late December and appeared to be the dominant strain of the virus in that country at the time.

“Currently there is no evidence to suggest that this variant has any impact on disease severity,” the CDC site says.

3. It’s in at least 10 US states — As of Tuesday, nine states and Washington, D.C., had reported a total of 19 cases of the variant, per the CDC site. The states include Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Illinois, California, and Maryland.

4. It’s not the only variant in the United States — Two others have been confirmed: the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, as well as the P.1 strain, which first emerged in Brazil, the CDC says.

“These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19,” the CDC says 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.”


The state DPH said Tuesday that mask-wearing remains a key component of the prevention strategy.

“New information from CDC shows that improving the fit and filtration of masks helps reduce the spread of the virus,” the DPH said. “Mask fit can be improved by using a mask with a nose wire and by using a mask fitter or by knotting the ear loops and tucking the sides. Mask filtration is improved by using multiple layers.”

5. Some researchers suggest the strains may be resistant to the vaccines — Balazs Lab, a research group affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard, and MIT, tweeted about the B.1.351 variant’s possible resistance to the vaccines Sunday.

“Of greatest concern, we find that three different variants of B.1.351 show very significant resistance to neutralization by vaccinee sera,” the lab tweeted, while adding that “our findings need to be replicated by other groups. This is a pre-print and has not yet undergone peer review. We might be missing something important that other scientists will point out to us.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at