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First infections with South Africa coronavirus strain found in California

People wait in line for the COVID-19 vaccine.
George Darby, 77, left, and his wife, Althea Darby, 69, wait for their turn to get the COVID-19 vaccine at a mobile vaccination site at South Park Recreation Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

California’s first cases of infection caused by the South Africa coronavirus variant have been confirmed in the San Francisco Bay Area, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.

Newsom said one case was found in Alameda County and the other in Santa Clara County. He did not share additional information on those who tested positive or how they might have contracted the viral variant, called B.1.351. Newsom said the cases involving the South Africa strain had been reported “as of a few hours ago.”

The announcement comes amid growing concern that variants of the coronavirus, some of which are believed to be more contagious, may be spreading with increased frequency at a time when California is still digging out from the devastation of its winter surge.

Although currently available vaccines appear to be effective against most of the coronavirus variants that have been identified to this point, the strain fueling a resurgence of COVID-19 in South Africa was not slowed down by a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. In a study involving a comparatively small group of about 2,000 people who were relatively young and healthy, the vaccine did not reduce the risk of mild to moderate illness.

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South African officials had been counting on the AstraZeneca vaccine to protect its frontline healthcare workers, but the study results prompted the government to shelve plans for an inoculation campaign that would have begun this month.

A COVID-19 vaccine developed by the U.S. company Novavax also was found to be nearly 90% effective against all types of COVID-19 when tested in Britain, yet only 49% effective in South Africa. Another developed by Johnson & Johnson reduced the risk of moderate to severe cases of COVID-19 by 72% in clinical trial participants in the U.S. but was only 57% effective in South Africa.

The vaccines could still be useful by preventing the worst effects of COVID-19 — hospitalization and death. Studies are ongoing.

The emergence of new virus variants will complicate efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists say. But they’re confident we’ll still get there.

None of those three vaccines has been authorized for use in the United States.

California has also confirmed 159 identifiable cases of infection caused by the coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, designated as B.1.1.7. That is of particular concern for health officials, as it is believed to be 50% more transmissible than the conventional variety.

Given how easily that variant can spread, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict it could become the dominant coronavirus strain nationwide by the end of March.

The U.K. variant has been identified in San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Alameda, San Mateo and Yolo counties.

L.A. County officials Monday confirmed the fourth and fifth cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said it’s clear that there are a fair number of mutant strains circulating in L.A. County.

With a more infectious virus, Ferrer said, “it just makes it easier for people to get infected. ... The variants are concerning because if we let our guard down, the more infectious strains can become dominant. And that just makes it a lot easier for this virus to spread.”

Officials predict the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K., will become the dominant coronavirus strain nationwide by the end of March.

Orange County on Monday confirmed its first case of the U.K. variant in a resident who reported no international travel history, “which means there are likely more cases in OC,” the county’s Health Care Agency tweeted.

Officials on Monday also confirmed the first case of the U.K. variant in the Sacramento region — in Yolo County, west of the state capital — after a person was determined to have the strain and “may have acquired the variant through travel outside the community,” according to a statement issued by UC Davis and the city of Davis.

At least 138 cases involving the U.K. variant have been confirmed in San Diego County, with 50 probable cases there. A UC San Diego scientist has warned government officials that the U.K. strain is so transmissible that its spread — combined with the rejection of mask use and physical distancing guidelines, as occurred across California in the fall — could result in an even worse surge within two months than occurred in the winter.

Times staff writers Melissa Healy and Emily Baumgaertner contributed to this report.


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