SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Two cases of the South African variant of COVID-19 were confirmed in the Bay Area, Governor Gavin Newsom confirmed Wednesday.
He said the cases of variant, called B.1.351, were in Santa Clara County and Alameda County during an afternoon press conference in the Central Valley.
These are the first confirmed cases of the variant in the entire state — reported by Stanford just two hours before Newsom spoke.
Watch Newsom’s full press conference below:
The first B.1.351 was first found in the United States at the end of Jan. 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
The South African variant was discovered in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa in Oct. 2020. The CDC says this variant has multiple mutations in the spike protein, which is concerning.
“Changes in the spike protein are particularly concerning to virologists and clinicians because they may help the virus spread more easily from person to person,” according to Stanford Medicine.
However, the CDC says, “currently there is no evidence to suggest that this variant has any impact on disease severity.”
UCSF doctor Monica Gandhi says she’s not as concerned about this particular strain for several reasons.
“It doesn’t make the virus worse meaning not more variant and importantly, does it reduce the efficacy of the vaccines we have in this country? Not Modern. Not Pfizer. Those are the only two that have been studied. They have slightly lower antibody levels but way above what we need to prevent disease and then the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which is being reviewed under the FDA on February 26th. It gets fewer disease in South Africa with this variant with B.1.351, it prevented hospitalizations and death by 100%. It prevented severe disease by 89% and it was only less effective with mild disease,” Dr. Gandhi said.
However, she says it’s still unclear how transmissible it is.
While only two cases were detected locally, Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Aara Cody believes more cases could be circulating because little testing is done to determine variants.
“We don’t do the sequencing on every positive specimen so in some ways we have to assume that perhaps these variants of concern are already circulating. We just don’t know to what extent,” Dr. Cody said.
Dr. Cody says the resident infected in Santa Clara County transmitted the variant through international travel, however, she’s encouraged that they followed the 10-day mandatory quarantine when returning home.
“This person upon returning immediately quarantined and therefore we don’t know of any opportunities of further spread in our community,” Dr. Cody said.
Meanwhile, Alameda County’s health officer had little travel information about the resident infected in his county.
Ultimately, Dr. Gandhi says it will take vaccinations and herd immunity to get through this.
“The only way to get through this is to vaccinate as many people as fast as possible. we’re not vaccinating as quickly we would have hoped at this time. It has to do with supply partially,” Dr. Gandhi said.
While supply is causing a major slowdown in vaccinations, D. Gandhi says she’s encouraged by the upcoming review for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but until then, this variant is another reminder to continue following the important health protocols and mask up.
Mutations of the virus from the UK and Brazil had already been detected in the Bay Area recently.
From the CDC: Potential consequences of emerging variants
- Ability to spread more quickly in people. There is already evidence that one mutation, D614G, confers increased ability to spread more quickly than the wild-type SARS-CoV-2. In the laboratory, 614G variants propagate more quickly in human respiratory epithelial cells, outcompeting 614D viruses. There also is epidemiologic evidence that the 614G variant spreads more quickly than viruses without the mutation.
- Ability to cause either milder or more severe disease in people. In January 2021, experts in the UK reported that B.1.1.7 variant may be associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variants. More studies are needed to confirm this finding.
- Ability to evade detection by specific viral diagnostic tests. Most commercial reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)-based tests have multiple targets to detect the virus, such that even if a mutation impacts one of the targets, the other RT-PCR targets will still work.
- Decreased susceptibility to therapeutic agents such as monoclonal antibodies.
- Ability to evade natural or vaccine-induced immunity. Both vaccination against and natural infection with SARS-CoV-2 produce a “polyclonal” response that targets several parts of the spike protein. The virus would likely need to accumulate multiple mutations in the spike protein to evade immunity induced by vaccines or by natural infection.