Cluster of U.K. variant coronavirus cases hits on USC campus

Officials are investigating a cluster of four coronavirus cases at USC, two of which are confirmed to be the more contagious and potentially more deadly variant first identified in Britain, B.1.1.7.

The two other cases tied to this cluster are still awaiting lab confirmation, said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

“All of these cases were detected as part of USC’s routine testing and surveillance program,” Ferrer said Wednesday. “The individuals are doing well, and they’re in isolation. Close contacts have been identified, notified and they are in quarantine.”

Scientific research does suggest that the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the U.K. variant.

“But with vaccine supply still very limited, the local transmission of the potentially more infectious U.K. variant underscores the need for every one of our residents to continue to use every tool we have to prevent transmission,” Ferrer said, “including not gathering with people you don’t live with, and distancing and masking whenever you’re out of your home and around others.”

There are now 18 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in L.A. County; more than 200 in California and more than 1,800 nationwide, with 45 states reporting cases.

Another variant of concern, first identified in South Africa, B.1.351, has not been identified in L.A. County, but has been identified in the Bay Area, which has the only two confirmed cases in California — one in Santa Clara County, and the other in Alameda County. The South African variant has been reported in 46 cases nationwide in 14 states.

A variant related to the South African strain, P.1, first identified in Brazil, has not been identified in California but has been identified in four states nationwide in five people. But another Brazilian strain, P.2., has been identified in a sample from the Bay Area.

This week, researchers at UC San Francisco disclosed new information about the homegrown California variant, named B.1.427/B.1.429, which includes a worrisome mutation dubbed L452R.

New research strongly suggests that the coronavirus strain now dominant in California not only spreads more readily than its predecessors, but also has the ability to evade antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines or prior infection. It’s also associated with more severe illness and death.

Those attributes have some scientists worried that the homegrown variant could reverse California’s recent progress in reducing new infections — especially if it’s able to swap mutations with other threatening strains. Experts said it underscores the need to vaccinate people as quickly as possible and to continue wearing masks, maintain social distance and follow other public health precautions as the state begins to reopen more.

By the end of next month, the homegrown B.1.427/B.1.429 strain will probably account for 90% of the state’s coronavirus infections, said Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious-disease researcher and physician at UC San Francisco.

Ferrer said that 40% to 50% of the coronavirus samples sequenced in the L.A. County public health lab since December contain the L452R mutation.

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