California's 1st cases of South African COVID-19 variant confirmed in Bay Area, officials say

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Through genomic sequencing, a lab at Stanford turned up California's first two cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday.

The 501Y.V2 variant is one of several recent mutations of the virus, most of which involve changes to its spike protein -- the part of the virus that enables it to enter human cells -- that may make it more contagious and slightly more resistant to vaccines.

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"The issue of mutations is top of mind, not only here in the state of California, across this nation, but increasingly around the globe," Newsom said Wednesday during a briefing in Fresno County.

The state has also confirmed 159 cases of the COVID-19 variant that originated in the United Kingdom and 1,203 cases of the two variants that originated on the West Coast, according to Newsom.

Bay Area health officials said they just learned about the South African variant cases on Wednesday, which highlights the urgent need to stop the spread of the virus, before it has more opportunity to mutate.

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There's one confirmed case in Alameda County, with very few details available about the patient.

In Santa Clara County, there is one confirmed case and another presumed case involving two people in the same household.

"This is an adult who had traveled internationally returned in mid-January, and then per the mandatory quarantine requirement in Santa Clara

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County, quarantined," said Santa Clara County Health Officer, Dr. Sara Cody, who declined to say where the patients traveled, only saying their travel history was "complicated".

She explained that several days after returning they, "developed symptoms, got diagnosed. So the good news is that at no time during their infectious period, were they in contact with anyone outside of their household."

A relief considering, what Alameda County Health Officer, Dr. Nicholas Moss said. "It is reasonable to expect that it's more infectious than other circulating strains."

Dr. Moss also said the current Pfizer and Moderna vaccines still protect against the variants. "Even if there is somewhat reduced efficacy in some cases, overall it is still very good, but I think prudently the manufacturers and others are looking at booster strategies should they be necessary either for these or other variants that could emerge."

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Dr. Cody said to assume variants of concern are already circulating, even though in the US, lab capacity is too limited to rapidly identify and track emerging variants.

Stanford's, Dr. Catherine Blish, agrees. "We don't have a coordinated response. And it feels exactly like it felt early in the pandemic when we were trying to source enough reagents to do testing."

Dr. Blish is an infectious disease expert and runs a lab at Stanford that studies the new variants. Some vaccines are proving less effective against the South African variant, but Blish says Moderna and Pfizer should still provide strong protection.

Shesays at this point it's a race between the emerging variants and our ability to stop the spread of the virus, before it has a chance to further mutate. "The way we win that race, is we get more vaccines into more arms before we get more new infections, and then the virus doesn't have the opportunity to do that."

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Dr. Blish explained that if new variants begin to outrun vaccines, it's possible that instead of eradicating COVID, the strategy will have to pivot to living with the virus and vaccinating against it more like the flu.

"We are hoping as a world that we can generate enough immunity to COVID that we can not just stop hospitalization and death, but that we can stop transmission altogether. At some point we may have to evaluate whether that's still the goal or whether the goal is just to stop hospitalization and death, in which case personal immunity is absolutely what we want."

That outcome is not a forgone conclusion. As Dr. Cody pointed it, it means people need to continue to focus on masking, distancing, and getting vaccinated. "I think what this information does, is it really underscores how important it is even though we're tired, even though we've been doing this for a year that we have to continue to take all of these precautions."


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