California’s ‘Nightmare’ COVID Variant: What We Know

The answer to how California’s winter surge became so deadly could partly lie in a variant known as B.1.427/B.1.429. The strain was first detected in LA County over the summer and is soon became the state’s dominant variant. Preliminary data suggest it’s more transmissible and more likely to cause severe disease. According to a preprint from researchers at UC San Francisco, which has not yet been made available to the public, the California variant is nearly five times more likely to result in admission to the ICU and 11 times more likely to cause fatality.

It’s an important factor in understanding how we got here, with the highest number of coronavirus deaths of any state. But what bearing does it have on the future? In other words, how will this more contagious, more dangerous strain react to the vaccine?

The Los Angeles Times painted a bleak picture of the strain’s resilience last week. It reported that B.1.427/B.1.429 appears to be “more resistant to neutralizing antibodies generated in response to COVID-19 vaccines as well as by a previous coronavirus infection.” The researchers told the Times that the decrease in antibody protection was “moderate ... but significant.” The study’s lead author, Dr. Charles Chiu, was quoted as saying “The devil is already here.”

Chiu has already walked that comment back. He has also called the Times’ article “over the top.” So what’s the truth?

At this point, it's not entirely clear. And the UCSF data has still not been peer-reviewed. Many experts are advising caution, but they’re also expressing confidence that vaccination will prove successful against this new strain, even if it’s slightly less effective than against older variants.

“It’s very difficult for a variant to completely escape the vaccine,” John Hopkins infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja, M.D. told Prevention. David Cennimo, M.D., assistant professor of medicine-pediatrics infectious disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, agreed.

The fact that California’s COVID-19 cases are plunging would suggest antibodies from either prior infection or vaccines are providing some protection. There were 5,151 cases reported Sunday, a 0.1% increase from the previous day. The seven-day positivity rate is at 2.4% and the 14-day positivity rate is 2.7%. Those are encouraging numbers. Let’s hope that holds.