A COVID-19 coronavirus variant that likely emerged in May 2020 has rapidly become the dominant strain in California — and it is not only more transmissible than earlier strains, but also avoids antibodies generated via COVID-19 vaccines or immunity from earlier infections, according to a study initially reported by the Los Angeles Times.
What's worse, this California variant is linked with severe illness and death, according to the researchers from the study.
Rapidly-spreading COVID-19 variant in California resistant to vaccines
Scientists at UC San Francisco said the cluster of worrying mutations characterizing the California strain ought to denote it as a "variant of concern," comparable with ones from the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil.
The people of California and the rest of the U.S. have prepared for the surge in cases of the more transmissible variants from the U.K. — called B.1.1.7. But they may be dismayed to learn that the rival one in California is likely just as serious, has already taken hold in one of the biggest states, and is expected to account for 90% of California's total infections before the end of March, said Charles Chiu, an infectious diseases researcher and physician at UCSF.
"The devil is already here," Chiu said, who also led the team of epidemiologists, statisticians, geneticists, and other scientists in a comprehensive analysis of the California variant — called B.126.96.36.199/B.188.8.131.52. "I wish it were different. But the science is the science," reports the Los Angeles Times.
Experts advise doubling down on health-measures, social distancing
Both of the California and U.K. variants have enhanced features, and the probability of them circulating in the same population presents a growing threat of a return to the days of spiking infections and deaths, said Chiu. This development could also lead to what he calls a "nightmare scenario:" when two viruses meet in a single person, swap mutations, and give birth to an even more dangerous strain of the coronavirus.
The new evidence suggesting the California coronavirus variant might make people sicker and vaccines less potent should drive everyone to redouble their efforts to drive down the spread of the virus, said Chiu. This should involve both public health measures like masking and limiting public activities, and a renewed campaign to vaccinate the population as rapidly as possible, he added.
On Wednesday, the FDA posted new analyses on its website suggesting Johnson & Johnson's single-dose COVID-19 vaccine was effective against South Africa and Brazil's variants. While the effectiveness of J&J's vaccine on the U.K. or Californian variants is unclear, it did show an 86% effectiveness rate against cases in the U.S. This doesn't mean it will negate the enhanced features of the California strain, but we can hope for pleasant surprises as the rollout of new vaccines and boosters continue throughout the country.
This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.