LOS ANGELES – A coronavirus variant that emerged in mid-2020 and surged to become the dominant strain in California doesn't just spread more readily than its predecessors, it also evades antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines or prior infection and it's associated with severe illness and death, researchers said.
In a study that helps explain the state's dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths — and portends further trouble ahead — scientists at the University of California, San Francisco said that the cluster of mutations that characterizes the homegrown strain should mark it as a "variant of concern" on par with those from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.
"The devil is already here," said Dr. Charles Chiu, who led the UCSF 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."
Californians, along with the rest of the country, have been bracing for the rise of a more transmissible coronavirus variant from the U.K. known as B.1.1.7. But they should know that a rival strain that is probably just as worrisome has already settled in, and will probably account for 90% of the state's infections by the end of next month, said Chiu, an infectious diseases researcher and physician.
The U.K. and California variants are each armed with enhanced capabilities, and the likelihood that they could circulate in the same population raises the specter of a return to spiking infections and deaths, Chiu said. It also opens 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.
The new evidence that the California variant could make people sicker, and vaccines less effective, should spur more intensive efforts to drive down infections, Chiu said. Those should include both public health measures, such as masking and limits on public activities, and a campaign of rapid vaccinations, he added.
The new analysis is currently under review by the public health departments of San Francisco County and the state, which collaborated in the new research. It is expected to post late this week to MedRxiv, a website that allows new research to be shared before its formal publication.
Over five months starting on Sept. 1, the California strain, which is sometimes referred to as 20C/L452R, rose from complete obscurity to account for more than 50% of all coronavirus samples that were subjected to genetic analysis in the state. Compared with strains that were most prominent here in early fall, the new strain seems to have an enhanced ability to spread, Chiu said.
Exactly how much more transmissible the California strain is remains an open question, he added. But the evidence that it's more contagious comes from several sources.
Samples collected from a range of counties, and using a variety of collection methods, 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 its predecessors.