SAN DIEGO — The California Department of Public Health says an L452R variant of COVID-19 is increasingly being identified in multiple counties across the state.
Officials announced the uptick in detection of the L452R strain Sunday after it was linked to several outbreaks in Santa Clara County. It was first identified last year in other countries and states, including California.
State health leaders said the 452R variant has been detected in Humboldt, Lake, Los Angeles, Mono, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco and San Luis Obispo counties.
It is different than the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom and later confirmed in San Diego County.
The 452R variant is found through a dynamic test called genome sequencing done by only some labs across the state. Health officials say the 452R strain now accounts for about 25% of tests, a sharp increase since health leaders say the variant was fairly uncommon in California last November.
Now the race is on to learn more about the strain. The state said because genomic sequencing is not performed equally across the state or country, it is too soon to know how prevalent the variant is statewide, nationally or globally.
“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. “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.”
The state is now working with the CDC, local public health departments and laboratory sequencing partners to learn more about the variant and how it spreads.
“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,” CDPH Epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan said.
The variant was tied to several large outbreaks in Santa Clara County, including outbreaks where very high numbers of people exposed contracted the virus. Because of the strain’s mutation, some health officials say there could be cause for concern.
“This variant carries three mutations, including L452R, in the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to and enter cells, and is the target of the two vaccines that are currently available in the United States,” said Dr. Chiu. “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.”
Illumina Chief Medical Officer Phil Febbo said there’s still a lot to learn about the new variant, and how new strains could react to vaccines. That’s why he and other medical experts are calling for more genomic surveillance in testing.
“Once we get more and more individuals vaccinated, there is a chance individuals who have received the vaccine could still get infected, we start selecting for strains that actually figure out how to escape the vaccine,” Dr. Febbo said.
Meaning it’s vital for health experts to track how COVID-19 evolves going forward.