During a press conference on Sunday, Bay Area health officials said they are “concerned” about the rising number of coronavirus cases identified with a California variant of COVID-19. This variant is different from others identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
The California variant was first discovered in May and simmered in the population over the summer and fall, when the number of cases was much lower than it is now.
Known by virologists as L452R, the variant grew from 4% of the samples scientists sequenced in the first half of December to roughly a quarter in the second half of the month.
Virologists are still trying to determine if the variant is more infectious than the original coronavirus strain.
Dr. Sarah Cody, Santa Clara County’s health officer, says it’s too early to draw conclusions about the variant, which has been identified in a number of outbreaks.
“We need to lean in and do more investigation,” she said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, talked about the variant with KQED's Tara Siler on Tuesday. Gandhi says she is not worried about the effectiveness of the vaccines on the variants. Here is an excerpt from that interview, edited for length and clarity:
How concerning are these variants in terms of California's current surge?
Dr. Monica Gandhi: We only know, so far, that the so-called UK variant B117 is more infectious, and we don't know if the L452R, the California strain, is more infectious. It just happened to be the strain that is being sequenced and coming out in our latest Bay Area surge. But it may have just gotten lucky; it doesn't mean it's more infectious. It may have just been the one that was spreading as things were opening up.
How effective will the vaccines be in protecting us from these new virus variants?
Gandhi: I think it's really important to feel hopeful about the vaccines and not start getting really concerned that [the variants] are going to evade them. The reason I say that is because the two authorized vaccines we have, from Pfizer and Moderna, have the entire spike protein that you code for when the vaccine is put in your system, and you make a very complex antibody response to that spike protein.
These variants have little point mutations along the spike protein, but that doesn't mean the spike protein is totally changed. In fact, there are three mutations on the L452R variant along the spike protein, but that doesn't mean the vaccine won't work. I think that is total speculation, and we'll worry a lot of people if we stress that too much.
On that front, do you think we're underselling the vaccines?
Gandhi: I am really concerned about that. These vaccines could not be better. We thought that if we got a 50% efficacy rate, we would probably still approve it in this country, and these vaccines are 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 infection that's symptomatic, and almost 100% effective in preventing severe outcomes. These vaccines are amazing. Instead of worrying that these variants are going to evade the vaccine response, I'm not worried about that at all. In fact, Pfizer's done some studies with B117, and it looks like the UK variant is just fine in terms of the vaccine working. So I wouldn't speculate. I think when we keep focusing too much on the negatives, it actually could prevent people from getting the vaccine. We are lucky to have these vaccines, and we've got to get them out.
More on coronavirus variants:
— Polly Stryker, Kevin Stark and Jon Brooks