UCSF researchers study CA's COVID-19 variant with fears virus will continue mutating

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- On Dec. 31, UCSF'S Dr. Charles Chiu and his colleagues were in a lab when they found what they are calling"L-452R," a California variant of COVID-19.

"We actually discovered this variant incidentally while doing genomic surveillance specifically looking for the variant that emerged from the United Kingdom. In the process for the screening of the variant we did note that we saw cases of this variant in California," said Dr. Charles Chiu, Director of UCSF's Abbott Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center.

Immediately after his discovery, Dr. Chiu alerted the state's health department.

"The initial case of it appears to have emerged from California in July. It was really at the baseline levels until about a month ago perhaps mid-late November when we started to see increase in cases of the variant," said Dr. Chiu.

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Currently, multiple cases of this variant have been spotted across the state.

"The variant had increased from a portion of less than 5% to more than 25%. A quarter of cases," said Dr. Chiu.

The variant found in the UK is spreading between 30% and 70% faster than others. Dr. Chiu says they're still studying the CA variant and its transmission rate, and hopes his findings push for a scientific surveillance system to catch these variants faster.

"We do not have an organized systematic and robust genomic surveillance system," and Dr. Chiu added, "This is what we really need because we need to determine and have a rigorous system, a surveillance system by which we can identify by what percentage of these strains in our community maybe these variances of concern."

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Luz Pena: "Do you project that as the virus continues to mutate, those vaccines will also have to change?"

Dr. Chiu: "There will potentially be an emergence of variance that will require the vaccine to be modified and perhaps a new vaccine will have to be created and tested for use against these new variances."

Luz Pena: "How would you compare the variant that was found here in California to the one found in the U.K.?"

Dr. Chiu: "The variant in the UK has a specific mutation called N501Y. This is a mutation that is thought to be the critical mutation that makes that variant more transmissible and more infectious.

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The variant in California has a total of 3 mutations in the spike protein. One of them is a different mutation than the one in the U.K."

As Dr. Chiu and his team continue to gather data they are concerned as the virus continues to mutate.

"Our worry is that what fuels and propagates this variance is really the increasing numbers of cases. Because with every additional case the virus has an additional opportunity to mutate into a new variant," said Dr. Chiu.

According to Dr. Chiu at least 10 counties in California have reported cases of the CA variant his team found.

Dr. Chiu says the most effective way to stop this mutation is to vaccinate as many people as possible and fast.

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