State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs discusses distribution of COVID-19 vaccines during a January press conference at the Woolfolk Building in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A more infectious and vaccine-resistant variant strain of COVID-19 was detected in Mississippi on Friday. One person in Harrison County was found to be infected with the B.1.351 variant, which was discovered in South Africa in December and reached the United States in January.

There are currently 181 confirmed cases of the B.1.351 variant across 26 U.S. states and territories.

Scientists are concerned about the variant because clinical trials of the three vaccines approved in the U.S. are showing that they offer less protection against B.1.351 than other variants. People who recover from COVID-19 may be reinfected if exposed to B.1.351 because one of its mutations makes it harder for antibodies to latch onto. 

While more data is needed, preliminary studies have shown that despite any small decreases in overall efficacy, the vaccines being administered in the U.S. still provide robust protection against the most severe outcomes of a COVID-19 infection. 

“This just reinforces our messaging how important it is to get vaccinated and protected now. Time is of the essence,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said during a Friday press conference.

Dobbs also encouraged Mississippians to continue to follow preventative measures like masking in public, because limiting community spread is the best way to prevent new strains from gaining significant footholds in the state.

As infections from variants continue to surge in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is preparing a plan to update vaccines if needed. This could include the development of a third booster shot by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech for their vaccines.

B.1.351 is the second variant strain of COVID-19 to reach Mississippi. Ten cases of the U.K. variant, B.1.1.7, have been confirmed in the state since mid-February. Preliminary studies in Britain have found this variant to be 30-50% more infectious and around 55% deadlier than the original strain of COVID-19. 

In Mississippi, 627,922 people — 21% of the state’s population — have received at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. More than 350,000 people have been fully inoculated since the state began distributing vaccines in December.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.