Another COVID-19 Variant Linked To Rising Cases In California

People wearing face masks stop for a conversation along Huntington Beach in California on April 30, 2020. Image credit: Matt Gush/Shutterstock.com

California has warned that another variant of COVID-19 is ripping through parts of the state. Like the many other variants that have recently been identified across the world, there’s no evidence yet that vaccines will be any less effective against this mutated strain, but health officials are looking to see if it is more transmissible.

The California Department of Public Health announced on January 17 that viral genomic sequencing is finding an increasing number of COVID-19 cases caused by the “452R variant” of the virus across the state. 

The 452R variant was first identified last year in other countries and states but is now becoming increasingly common in California. It's been detected in several large outbreaks in Santa Clara County, but sequencing has also been picked up in Humboldt, Lake, Los Angeles, Mono, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco, San Bernardino, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo counties.

“The fact that this variant was identified in several large outbreaks in our county is a red flag and must be investigated further,” Dr Sara Cody, Santa Clara County Health Officer, said in a statement. “This virus continues to mutate and adapt, and we cannot let down our guard. This news underscores the need for everyone to follow all prevention measures and get vaccinated as soon as they are offered the vaccine.”

Mutations are a natural part of the virus life cycle, and thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants have been identified over the course of the pandemic – most of which are inconsequential or harmless. However, recent months have seen an increasing number of reports detailing variants that may potentially be more contagious. 

One of the best known is the “UK Variant”, also known as VOC-202012/01 or lineage B.1.1.7 which has been linked to the surging number of COVID-19 cases in the UK over the past month. Much of the worry around this variant has been due to mutations that occur on the virus’s spike protein, which some have suggested could make the virus more contagious.

The 452R variant that’s recently been detected in California also features mutations that affect the spike protein, hence some of the concerns. However, it’s too early to say whether the variant is more infectious. While it’s being linked to an increasing number of cases, this could be due to a multitude of factors, not necessarily the innate characteristics of the variant. 

“This variant carries three mutations, including L452R, in the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to and enter cells, and is the target of the two vaccines that are currently available in the United States,” explained Dr Charles Chiu, virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF.

Preliminary studies of the other recently identified variants, such as the UK variant and the South African variant, have suggested that the vaccines should still respond to the virus despite the mutations to the spike protein. This is something health authorities in California will have to further investigate, but it’s hoped this will remain true for the 452R variant. 

For more information about COVID-19, check out the IFLScience COVID-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.

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