UCSF researchers say California’s virus variant is cause for concern


SAN DIEGO — A study of a coronavirus variant that researchers believe is fast becoming the dominant strain in California suggests it may spread more rapidly and have more severe consequences than its predecessors.

The findings came as researchers at UC San Francisco were trying to better understand the state’s holiday surge in cases. It’s important to note that their study has yet to be published and is still in the review process, but based on their research, the scientists would like the strain to be marked as a “variant of concern,” as are those from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

As Dr. Joe Derisi, a professor at UCSF, put it: “It’s a race between us and the variants — and we don’t want to lose.” 

The UCSF team believes the mutation may have taken hold in May of last year. By next month, a vast majority of positive cases will be of this variant. And they say it not only appears to spread more readily but also may be associated with more severe illness and death. 

That news comes as San Diego County sees a dramatic decrease in positive cases, hospitalizations and death.

While no one is disputing the findings, some are cautioning against the early analysis of those findings, since the study has yet to be published. Those voicing restraint include esteemed local cardiologist, scientist, and author Dr. Eric Topol.

“There’s a problem with labelling the California variant ‘increasingly dangerous’ when there isn’t even a preprint published and we’re watching dramatic descent in cases, hospitalization and deaths despite its high frequency,” he wrote on Twitter.

He posted his thoughts with a link to recent Los Angeles Times article about the study. In the story, UCSF researcher and physician Dr. Charles Chiu told the Times that the California variant will probably account for 90% of the state’s infections by the end of March.

“The devil is already here,” Chiu told the paper. “I wish it were different. But the science is the science.”

The study will be published next week to MedRxiv, where research is previewed before it’s formally published. For now, the analysis is under review by the San Francisco Public Health Department and the state. 

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