A new variant of the COVID-19 virus is showing up in rising numbers of cases, officials from the California Department of Public Health, Santa Clara County and UC San Francisco announced Sunday.
The variant, which has previously been detected in other countries and states, is now increasingly being found in multiple counties throughout California, health officials said in a news release.
“It’s too soon to know if this variant will spread more rapidly than others,” Dr. Erica Pan, an epidemiologist for the California Department of Public Health, said in a statement.
News of another variant of COVID-19 comes just as officials grapple with high rates of cases, limited ICU beds and a slow rollout of the two vaccines for the virus.
Pan said that the introduction of the variant, while common in viruses like SARS-CoV-2, reinforces the need to wear masks and reduce mixing with people outside the immediate household.
According to a news release, California officials are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local public health departments and laboratory sequencing partners to learn more about the variant, including how it spreads.
The 452R variant, as it is known, was first identified last year. The latest variant is different from the B.1.1.7 variant, a more contagious strain first detected in the United Kingdom, according to the news release.
The 452R variant has been identified more frequently since November, 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,” Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said in a statement. “This virus continues to mutate and adapt, and we cannot let down our guard. This news underscores the need for everyone to follow all prevention measures and get vaccinated as soon as they are offered the vaccine.”
Neither Cody nor other officials were immediately available to discuss whether the variant could specifically be linked to recent outbreaks at a Kaiser Permanente facility in San Jose, on the SJSU football team, and at Santa Clara County jails.
In addition to Santa Clara County, the 452R variant has been detected in Humboldt, Lake, Los Angeles, Mono, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco, San Bernardino, San Diego and San Luis Obispo counties, according to officials.
But health officers said it is too soon to know how prevalent the variant is because genomic sequencing is not done equally across the state or country.
Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at the UC San Francisco has been sequencing cases from multiple state counties for the past several months in order to monitor variants of the coronavirus.
Chiu said in a statement that this particular variant carries three mutations that the virus uses to attach to and enter cells.
He added that the variant is being prioritized for study “to determine whether or not this virus is more infectious or affects vaccine performance.”