Scientists are raising concerns over a new coronavirus variant that has been identified in California.
Two studies due to come out soon has suggest the variant, which the virologists call B.1.427/B.1.429, might not only be more contagious, but may also cause more severe disease.
A team of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), tested virus samples from recent outbreaks across the state and found the new variant was becoming far more common. It wasn’t seen in any samples from September but by the end of January it was found in half of them.
A major caveat: the research is in its very early stages, has not been published or peer-reviewed and needs more work.
The scientists say the variant has a different pattern of mutations than the ones first seen in the United Kingdom and South Africa. One of its mutations affects the spike protein of the virus, which is the part that attaches to cells the virus infects. Dr. Charles Chiu, associate director of the clinical microbiology lab at UCSF and the study’s lead, said the mutation might make the virus more efficient at docking to cells, increasing its infectiousness.
Chiu’s team also found some evidence it is more dangerous.
The scientists said they observed “increased severity of disease” associated with the new variant, including “increased risk of high oxygen requirement.” Their report will be posted to a preprint server later this week after public health officials in San Francisco review it.
New variants could cause complications in the coming weeks in the United States, even though infections are currently declining across the country and more people are being vaccinated.
Public health experts fear new variants are outpacing the vaccinations, which is why many have highlighted the need to double down on safety measures like wearing face masks, social distancing and avoiding crowded areas.
So far, more than 1,900 cases of coronavirus strains first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been reported across the US, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows. Most of those cases — about 1,881 — are of the variant first identified in the UK that the CDC has previously warned could become the predominant strain by next month.