A new coronavirus variant has been detected in California. It not only spreads faster than previous versions but it can also go undetected by antibodies generated by either vaccines or prior infection. The new variant has been associated with severe illness and death, researchers said.
“The devil is already here,” said Dr. Charles Chiu, who led a team of geneticists, epidemiologists, statisticians and other scientists in a wide-ranging analysis of the new variant, which they call B.1.427/B.1.429. “I wish it were different. But the science is the science.”
The new strain is estimated to account for 90% of the state’s infections by the end of next month, said Chiu, an infectious diseases researcher and physician at UCSF.
Samples collected from different counties suggest the variant is 19% to 24% more transmissible. But in some circumstances, its advantage was much greater. In one nursing home outbreak, B.1.427/B.1.429 spread at a rate that was six times higher than that of its predecessors.
The variant’s enhanced ability to spread was also evident in laboratory results. An analysis of viral samples from around the state showed that compared with people infected with other variants, those who were infected with B.1.427/B.1.429 had viral loads in the upper part of the throat that were twice as high.
The new study also suggested the California variant could be more deadly. Medical charts of 324 patients who tested positive for B.1.427/B.1.429 and hospitalized at UCSF showed that 21% of these patients were more likely to be admitted to the ICU. They were also 11 times more likely to die. These findings held up even after researchers adjusted for differences in the patients’ age, gender and ethnicity.
A Cause for Concern
The U.K. and California variants both have enhanced capabilities, which could open the door to a “nightmare scenario”: That the two viruses will meet in a single person, swap their mutations and create an even more dangerous strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert said that a survival-of-the-fittest contest between the U.K. and California variants could accelerate the spread of the strain that’s best able to elude the effects of vaccines.
The best way to prevent this, he added, is to stop the spread of either variant by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and practicing social distancing. “If viruses don’t replicate, they don’t mutate,” Fauci said.
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