Stanford researchers launch large-scale surveillance for COVID-19 variants

STANFORD, Calif. (KGO) -- The coronavirus is changing much faster than scientists had expected, which could ultimately make it much harder to contain. But at Stanford University, a new effort is underway to help track these tricky variants in our community, which are already spreading in other parts of the world.

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"This virus is quite transmissible and some of these new variants might be even more transmissible," said Dr. Benjamin Pinsky, director of the Stanford Clinical Virology Laboratory, where researchers have developed new tests to track viral variants and to quickly identify new mutations. The information is critical to understanding if they'll spread more easily.

Pinsky added, "The UK variant, I believe, is in over 60 countries now, (and) the South African variant is in over 20 countries despite limitations on travel."

Researchers have already screened hundreds of samples collected through Stanford's COVID-19 testing sites and are planning to ramp up over the next week.

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One strain that's already concerning is known as L452R, which has been identified as the cause of several outbreaks throughout the region, including the deadly Christmas Day outbreak at Kaiser Permanente San Jose, which infected at least 90 people.

"The way viruses mutate is by continued replication, so there's two ways they can do that. One, they either continue to replicate unchecked in one person, or they can continue to replicate by finding more people to infect," said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease expert and professor at Stanford School of Medicine.

Surveillance of the variants will also help determine whether they cause more severe disease or render vaccines less effective, which are crucial details that could help public health efforts across the country.

"The key is the masking, the social distancing, and all those things we've heard about, over and over again," said Pinsky. "Those things work on all of these viruses, no matter which variant is present."

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