COVID-19 variant found in California; Dr. Fauci says more states ‘likely’

Scientists in the United Kingdom said the variant strain, known as B.1.1.7, is more contagious than previously identified strains but not more severe.

SHARE COVID-19 variant found in California; Dr. Fauci says more states ‘likely’

Lab staff process RT-PCR tests at an on-site Covid-19 testing laboratory at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on December 31, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

SAN DIEGO – California has reported its first case of a more contagious COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom – the second confirmed case in the U.S.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking in an online conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said the case was confirmed in Southern California Wednesday afternoon. 

During a Wednesday afternoon briefing, San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said a 30-year-old man in the county with no travel history tested positive for the new strain on Tuesday.

“Because there is no travel history, we believe this is not an isolated case in San Diego County,” Fletcher said. He urged residents to stay at home for New Year’s celebrations, citing the region’s already strained healthcare system.

On Tuesday, California reported Southern California’s Intensive Care Unit availability is 0%.

Colorado reported the first known case of the variant in the U.S. on Tuesday and was investigating a second possible case Wednesday. Both of the cases are National Guard soldiers who were deployed to support staffing at a nursing home in Simla, Colorado, outside Denver, state health officials said.

Fauci said he was not surprised by the finding in California. “We likely will be seeing reports from more states,” Fauci said. “This is something that’s expected.”

Scientists in the United Kingdom said the variant strain, known as B.1.1.7, is more contagious than previously identified strains but not more severe. According to models, it has an increased transmission rate of 70% compared with other variants in the U.K.

The strain was first spotted in September in southeastern England and accounted for a quarter of cases in London by November. By the week of Dec. 9, it was responsible for 60% of cases in the city.

As Britain cheered the emergency authorization Wednesday of a coronavirus vaccine produced by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, the government extended its highest tier of restrictions to three-quarters of England’s population, beyond London and the southeast to large swaths of central, northern and southwest England.

“Our strategy throughout has been to suppress the virus until a vaccine can make us safe. Suppressing the virus has got a whole lot harder because of the new variant – and we must take more action today,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, this new variant is now spreading across most of England, and cases are doubling fast.”

The strain has been identified in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Japan, Singapore, India, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

The Colorado lab identified the variant through analysis of testing samples, initially spotting a tell-tale sign of the variant in a PCR test. Scientists then sequenced the viral genome and found eight mutations specific to the spike protein gene associated with this variant, according to the governor’s office.

The CDC said last week that the strain could already be in the country without detection. As of Dec. 22, viruses had only been sequenced from about 51,000 of 17 million U.S. cases, the agency said.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, mutates regularly and acquires about one new mutation in its genome every two weeks, according to the CDC. The U.K. variant has several mutations that affect the so-called “spiked protein” on the virus surface that attaches to human cells.

“The overwhelming majority of mutations are irrelevant,” Fauci said. “Every once in a while, you get a mutation that does impact the function of the virus. This particular mutation does in fact make the virus better at transmitting from one person to another.”

Researchers believe current COVID-19 vaccines will likely protect against the new variant, but data is needed. The virus would “likely need to accumulate multiple mutations in the spike protein to evade immunity induced by vaccines or by natural infection,” according to the CDC.

“From what we know from experience with this mutation and other mutations, it’s unlikely to have a large impact on vaccine-induced immunity, or existing immunity from previous strains,” said Dr. Greg Armstrong, director of the CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection.

Armstrong said it is unclear how the variant may respond to COVID-19 treatments.

South Africa has also identified a strain similar to the one first identified in the U.K., but it emerged independently of the U.K. strain and is not related to it, according to the CDC. U.S. health officials said Wednesday they did not know if the South Africa strain was also circulating in the U.S.


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