Feared South African Covid-19 Mutant Discovered In California As It Surpasses NY As State With Most Virus-Related Deaths In US

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Tom Tapp
·4 min read
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“The issue of mutations is top of mind,” said Governor Gavin Newsom at his Wednesday Covid-19 press conference, “not only here in the State of California, but across the globe.”

Newsom then confirmed the first cases in the state of the variant first discovered in South Africa. On Tuesday, the governor reported that that variant had not been detected. But he said on Wednesday, “as of a few hours ago, two cases have been reported…one in Alameda County and one in Santa Clara county.”

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The CDC says the South African variant — also known as B.1.351 — seems to be more transmissible. One study also indicated it might be resistant to at least one vaccine.

Officials in South Africa this week halted the rollout of AstraZeneca vaccines — which are not yet being used in the United States — because the vaccinations were found in a clinical trial not to be effective in slowing spread of the South African variant. The mutation also may be less vulnerable to to the effects of antibody drugs or antibody-rich blood drawn from Covid-19 survivors, both of which help combat the virus.

And now that variant is loose in the most-infected state in the nation.

Watch: What to know about South African COVID-19 variant

Shortly after Newsom spoke, California recorded 44,989 deaths due to the pandemic. That made it the US state with the highest number of Covid-related fatalities, surpassing New York which on Wednesday recorded a total of 44,683 deaths.

Originally detected in early October 2020, B.1.351 shares some mutations with the UK variant — called B.1.1.7. Cases caused by B.1.351 had been reported in the US by the end of January 2021.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said in January that B.1.351 “troubles me.” He told CNN last week that the South African variant can reinfect those who have already had it.

“It is certainly not the dominant strain [in the U.S.] but if it becomes dominant,” said Fauci, “the experience of our colleagues in South Africa indicates that even if you’ve been infected with the original virus, that there is a very high rate of re-infection to the point where previous infection does not seem to protect you against re-infection, at least with the South African variant.”

Fauci said in January that continuing Covid-19 mutations were a “wake up call.”

Covid-19 variants are identified by genomically testing positive samples flagged by labs. The process is expensive and time consuming.

Newsom said on Wednesday that the state had 30 such labs and that they had sequenced over 12,000 samples. That may seem like a lot, but in a state of 40 million, even with likely cases identified by doctors, it’s comparatively small.

There are 159 confirmed cases in the state of the more transmissible variant discovered in the United Kingdom. Five of those cases were reported earlier this week in Los Angeles.

“There’s no way that we don’t have a fair amount of [that] variant circulating here,” said LA County Health Director Barbara Ferrer. The mutant UK strain is thought to be 30-50% more transmissible. According to a new report, the UK variant is doubling its prevalence among identified cases in the US every 9-10 days.

California also has its own unique strains. Newsom announced that 1,203 instances of the so-called West Coast Variants had been identified in the state. That’s a 20% increase in less than a week. Many of them seem to be in Los Angeles.

“At least 50% of our samples have shown the West Coast variant,” said Ferrer, before hedging that “more research needs to be done.”

Dubbed variously B.1.429 and B.1.427, the West Coast Variants, or sometimes called CAL.20C, the new strains are still mysterious.

Watch: What is long COVID?

Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF who, in concert with state authorities, has been genetically sequencing test samples to identify new variants said early indications are the CAL.20C might be less susceptible to the currently approved vaccines, but more investigation is needed.

Newsom said on Wednesday that the good news is the state has made “tremendous progress” on its daily case numbers. Indeed it has.

New cases in the state have plummeted from a mid-December high of over 53,000 daily to just over 8,000 on Wednesday. Hospitalizations and the number of virus patients in the ICU are also down. Deaths, however remain high, with over 500 reported on Wednesday. Mortality is a lagging indicator, however, and hopes are it will drop down soon.

Newsom also said a number of counties moved out of the state’s most restrictive tier in its Blueprint for a Safer Reopening yesterday. He believes that next week even more will make the jump.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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