Researchers are investigating whether a homegrown variant of coronavirus that appears to be spreading faster than any other strain in California could be behind the state’s recent holiday surge of infections.
The Los Angeles Times reports two independent research groups found the new strain, dubbed B.1.426, while looking for signs a more transmissible strain first identified in the United Kingdom was spreading throughout the Golden State.
A single instance of the strain was found in July, but it wasn’t discovered again until three months later. While the strain was barely detectable in October, it began to become more prevalent over the next few months.
According to the news outlet, researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles discovered that the strain made up 24 percent of about 4,500 viral samples gathered throughout California in the last weeks of December.
In a separate study, researchers found that 25 percent of 332 samples taken from late November through December were of the B.1.426 strain.
“There was a homegrown variant under our noses,” Charles Chiu, a laboratory medicine specialist at University of California, San Francisco, told The Los Angeles Times.
Researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said the strain has five mutations, including the L342R mutation, which alters the virus’s spike protein, which it uses to infiltrate human cells.
California’s death toll doubled in less than three months over the holiday season. The state has confirmed more than 3.1 million COVID-19 cases and 36,790 deaths.
While researchers suspect the new strain had a hand in the recent surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in California, it’s unclear to what degree it worsened the outbreak as other factors such as colder weather, holiday gatherings, travel and a disregard for public health measures have certainly played a role.
“It probably helped to accelerate the number of cases around the holiday season,” Eric Vail, a pathologist at Cedars Sinai, told the outlet.
“But human behavior is the predominant factor in the spread of a virus, and the fact that it happened when the weather became colder and in the midst of the holidays when people gather is not an accident,” he said.
Researchers say they are continuing to investigate the strain’s transmissibility.
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