Another COVID-19 variant is spreading across California, including in the Bay Area, where it has been linked to multiple large outbreaks, public health officials warned Sunday.
The variant, which is labeled L452R, is different from the highly-transmissible B.1.1.7 variant that was first found in the United Kingdom.
San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are among the places where the new variant was found. It was first detected last year in California, along with other states and countries, and has increasingly registered in viral genomic sequencing from multiple counties, officials said.
Dr. Sara Cody, the public health officer in Santa Clara County, said the variant was identified in the massive outbreak at a Kaiser Permanente emergency room in San Jose, which sickened dozens of people and led to one death. An inflatable Christmas costume, powered by an air pump, may have helped the virus to spread.
While much remains unknown about L452R, a UCSF virologist said it has mutations to the spike-shaped protein that the coronavirus uses to infect cells.
“It’s too soon to know if this variant will spread more rapidly than others, but it certainly reinforces the need for all Californians to wear masks and reduce mixing with people outside their immediate households to help slow the spread of the virus,” Dr. Erica Pan, California’s state epidemiologist, said in a statement.
Since November, California laboratories have increasingly detected the new variant. Santa Clara County found it as it studied positive COVID-19 specimens from throughout the county. The variant was found among community members and in “several large outbreaks, including outbreaks where very high numbers of people exposed contracted the virus,” officials said.
“The fact that this variant was identified in several large outbreaks in our county is a red flag and must be investigated further,” said Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County health officer, in the statement. “This virus continues to mutate and adapt, and we cannot let down our guard.”
Cody said the variant’s spread “underscores the need for everyone to follow all prevention measures and get vaccinated as soon as they are offered the vaccine.”
In addition to San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, the latest variant has been found in Humboldt, Lake, Los Angeles, Mono, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and San Luis Obispo counties. Officials don’t yet know how prevalent the variant is because genomic sequencing is not happening equally across the country.
Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF, has been sequencing COVID-19 specimens from various California counties. He is finding the variant in an increasing number of cases.
“Now that we know this variant is on the rise in our local communities, we are prioritizing it for study. Researchers at UCSF and elsewhere will now be able to perform the critical laboratory experiments to determine whether or not this virus is more infectious or affects vaccine performance,” Chiu said in a statement.
While officials race to learn more about the variant— and combat continually high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations — they are urging Californians to do everything possible to reduce spread of the virus. This includes staying home except for essential activities, and wearing a mask when leaving home.