Last Wednesday, when California Governor Gavin Newsom gave one of his regular Covid-19 updates, he expressed surprise at “something that not many people are paying attention to.” That “something” is the growth of the so-called West Coast variant of Covid-19.
Newsom and his surrogates have, to their credit, regular updates on the growth of the variant. Deadline reported that CA Director of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly reported in early February that the state had discovered 1,000 instances of the West Coast variant, which are actually two similar variants named B.1.427 / B.1.429 or CAL2.0C.
The following week, Newsom reported that the number of B.1.427 / B.1.429 cases identified had risen 20% to 1,200. Last week, when he expressed surprise at the lack of coverage, the governor noted a further 50% increase to 1,834 cases. But those numbers were only a fraction of the real numbers. Genomic tests are required to identify new variants from samples and are expensive.
Los Angeles County Records 20,000 Covid-19 Related Deaths; Local officials
As of early January, the state had administered more than 30 million Covid-19 tests. Of those tens of millions, only about 7,000 had been genomically analyzed, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Los Angeles County, for its part, only genomically analyzes a few dozen test samples each day.
According to Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF, author of a new study reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, CAL2.0C has risen to account for more than half of the cases in the state and could be the source. 90% of cases in the state at the end of March.
Worse, Dr. Chiu told the New York Times on Tuesday that variant infections produce a viral load twice that of other variants. CAL2.0C also seems more cunning at evading the immune system. As a result, Chiu said, cases caused by the variant double every 18 days.
While the most contagious variant of the virus in the UK is also spreading in the state, it appears to be spreading more slowly. But the two variants could be merged.
The UK and California variants are equipped with enhanced capabilities, and the likelihood that they can circulate in the same population raises the specter of a return to infections and deaths, Chiu said. It also opens the door to a “nightmare scenario”: that the two viruses will meet in a single person, swap their mutations and create an even more dangerous strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Eric Vail, Cedars-Sinai’s director of molecular pathology, told The New York Times in early February that CAL.20C may have played a role in the surge in cases that overwhelmed Southern California hospitals earlier this month. . “I’m pretty sure this is a more infectious strain of the virus,” Dr. Vail said.
“At least 50% of our samples have shown the West Coast variant,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week before stating that “more research needs to be done.”
That research can confirm what a small sample seems to indicate: The West Coast variant may not only be more transmissible, but more virulent.
Dr. Chiu studied the medical history of 324 people hospitalized at UCSF and found that people infected with CAL2.0C were more likely to have been admitted to the ICU and 11 times more likely to die.
That is, again, a very small sample and requires more research. But at the very least, the indications from Chiu’s research call for a huge increase in geonic evidence for Covid-19 itself and greater caution as the state proceeds to reopen.