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New Coronavirus Variant Found In LA County And Throughout California

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A sign announces free COVID-19 Testing in Boyle Heights. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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All viruses mutate over time, and Sars-CoV-2, which has become known worldwide as the novel coronavirus, is no exception. It’s mutated thousands of times since it was first identified more than a year ago.

Every once in a while a virus mutates in a way that helps it survive and reproduce. That may have happened with a new variant of the coronavirus popping up in California.

People have tested positive for COVID-19 with this new variant in 12 counties so far, including Los Angeles, Riverside, San Francisco, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, Humboldt, Lake, Mono, Monterey, San Luis Obisbo, and also San Clara County, where it’s been linked to outbreaks.

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Researchers are trying to determine if the new variant is more infectious than the current dominant strain.

“These viruses are pretty clever, and they are known to mutate,” said Karin Michels, chair of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

The variant contains mutations in the spike protein, which the viruses use to attack cell walls, Michels said. The two COVID-19 vaccines on the market, made by Pfizer and Moderna, train the body’s immune system to attack the spike protein.

“We are facing the first significant mutation of this virus right now. Luckily, it seems that it's mutated in a way that the current vaccine still protects from this new variant,” Michels said.

But if the virus remains unchecked, it will mutate faster, she said, potentially in a way that the current vaccines can't protect against.

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“It could be, another variant that's developing right now, that will not be captured and covered by our vaccine. That’s why it is so important to vaccinate people as quickly as possible,” Michels said.

The new mutation is different from the highly contagious strain first discovered in the United Kingdom, which also has public health officials worried. The U.S. federal government has warned that the British variant could become the dominant strain in this country by March.

If that happens, hospitals could be overwhelmed by a rapid rise in new COVID-19 cases.

Michels said she’s worried.

“We're racing against the clock. Who is going to win, us or the virus?”

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