Inside a pathology lab at Cedars-Sinai, Dr. Eric Vail and his team spent Christmas and New Year’s weeks examining COVID-19 samples to determine whether the fast-spreading variant, which prompted a holiday lockdown in the United Kingdom, had made its way to Southern California.
That’s when they stumbled upon something.
“The best sound in science is not Eureka! It’s ‘Hmm…that’s interesting,’” said Vail, who directs the molecular pathology lab at Cedars. “You look at it and go like, ‘Wait a second. This is new. This is something I didn’t expect.’”
That unexpected finding was an even different COVID-19 variant, one that originated here in California.
“What we saw was 40% of our cases were this new strain, this new variant that hadn’t been described before,” Vail said.
Vail’s colleague, research scientist Dr. Jasmine Plummer, has been examining the variant, known as CAL.20C, and said it emerged last summer but didn’t begin spreading quickly until about November.
“The first time we saw it was 1 in 1,230 in July, so not even a percentage. Very, very low. But over the holidays, we jumped into 20, 30, and now into 40%, so we’ve allowed for that opportunity,” Plummer said.
Her team’s research is still underway, but Plummer said a piece of good news is that this new variant doesn’t appear to be more lethal. It’s just more contagious. She suspects holiday gatherings and relaxed approaches to social distancing helped it circulate in communities.
“If it’s becoming more infectious, it’s trying to survive, so it’s up to us, and the onus is on us to not give it that opportunity,” Plummer said.
So how did this variant come about? Vail said that much like their discovery, this strain was the result of complete chance.
“Every person that gets infected by the virus becomes a little evolution chamber, becomes a mutation chamber. Because every time the virus replicates, there’s a chance, just by luck, that there’s an error,” Vail said.
In some cases, he added, that error makes the virus weaker. But in other cases, like with the new California strain, it makes the virus more fit to spread.
This is why the research team at Cedars-Sinai says taking precautions like masks and social distancing is still as important as ever. And will be until we are out of this pandemic.