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Why COVID mutations matter in containing the virus

Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) — A highly contagious strain of COVID-19 that recently surfaced in the United Kingdom has now been detected in California.

What does this mean for containing the virus in America in 2021?

Trailblazing researchers at UC San Francisco have some of these answers after sequencing thousands of strains of COVID-19. They have been sequencing ever since the pandemic began.

COVID is an RNA virus, which means it will inevitably evolve into new genetic mutations. Once these new, and more contagious strains spread beyond one community, they will cause a pandemic to last much longer.

Dr. Charles Chiu, director of viral diagnostics at UC San Francisco, has been closely sequencing COVID ever since the pandemic began in early 2020.

Chiu and his team knows the importance of genetic sequencing because it has the potential power to identify, pinpoint, and halt new strains before they spread beyond a local community into an entire country.

Chiu told KRON4, “The reason why we have been sequencing thousands of genomes is because we really want to develop a method by which we can track how the virus is evolving. How it is spreading? And really track the fate of these lineages or different strains of the virus?”

“What has been a game-changer most recently has been the fact that there has emerged a new variant which has been called B-117. This is a variant that was first (found) in the United Kingdom and that’s why it’s referred to as the UK variant. This is a variant that is supposedly more transmissible. And therefore it represents a big threat to us because, having strains that are more transmissible will prolong the pandemic and also increases the risk of more and more cases. We are doing sequencing because we really want to track these variants so we can halt them or curtail their spread very rapidly, if we are able to identify them,” he said.

“Currently we are really limited with our surveillance of these variants. As a country we have been doing very limited genomic sequencing. In the United States, we sequenced less than 1 percent of the actual number of the viruses or cases out there. Versus in the UK, where they are sequencing more than 10 percent,” Chiu said.

“If we lack the ability to do genomic surveillance, we are essentially proceeding ahead with a blindfold on. We need to know these variants as they emerging so we can properly curtail the spread of the pandemic,” Chiu said.

The development of multiple new vaccines is a “game changer,” Chiu said, that provide a light at the end of a tunnel.

“I don’t think the mutations themselves are going to affect the efficiency of the vaccine. One of the advantages of the vaccines that are currently being used is that the antibodies that are being made, that the person makes in response to the vaccine, the protective antibodies, they are directed against the entire viral genome. So one mutation is not going to suddenly make the vaccine ineffective. However, I do feel that the presence of these mutations especially mutations that make the virus more transmissible, they help fuel the pandemic. Meaning that there are more and more cases. And an exponential rise in the number of cases,” Chiu said.

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