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South Africa coronavirus variant that reduces vaccine efficacy found in two Bay Area counties

Two cases of a coronavirus variant first found in South Africa that reduces the effectiveness of some vaccines have been identified in the Bay Area, in Alameda and Santa Clara counties, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.

They are the first two cases of this variant, called B.1.351, to be found in California. They were identified by scientists at the Stanford Clinical Virology Laboratory on Tuesday night and reported to the state Wednesday morning.

Both people who tested positive for the new variant were diagnosed with COVID-19 in January. The Santa Clara County individual had recently traveled and was in quarantine with one other person, who also became sick but was never tested. That individual is presumed to also have been infected with the new variant, public health officials said.

The Santa Clara County individuals were “extraordinarily careful” about quarantine and do not pose a risk of further spread of the variant, said Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County health officer.

The Alameda County case is under investigation and the person’s travel history and potential interactions with others is not yet known, said Dr. Nicholas Moss, the county health officer.

“We don’t want any of these variants if they are here to spread any further. That’s really, really, really important,” Cody said at a news conference Wednesday. She said finding this variant in the region should signal people to “double down” on behaviors that slow down the spread of disease, such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

Though the winter surge is waning in the state and Bay Area, daily case counts are still worryingly high and the death toll is grim, Cody said. News of the variant’s arrival came the same day that California surpassed New York as the state with the most coronavirus deaths.

California reported 45,351 total coronavirus deaths as of Wednesday evening, just over New York’s 45,312 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. California remains far behind New York in deaths per capita, with about 115 deaths per 100,000 residents compared to 231 per 100,000 in New York, according to data analyzed by The Chronicle.

Public health officials have worried that new variants could pose a threat to the United States’ ability to quickly end the pandemic, either by evading vaccines or spreading too fast to contain. New variants could lead to more illness and death if they cause more severe symptoms or are more infectious and trigger fresh surges in cases.

The variant from the United Kingdom is thought to be about 50% more infectious than the original virus, and experts have warned it could become dominant in parts of the United States, including Southern California, by early March. More than 150 cases of that variant have been found in California, including Alameda and San Mateo counties.

Another pair of closely related variants identified in California have been spreading quickly in the Bay Area and Southern California. Scientists believe they respond to vaccines but are running tests now to determine if the variants reduce effectiveness. They’re also studying whether the variants are more infectious.

The variant from South Africa is considered particularly concerning because studies have found that it is able to partially evade the body’s immune response, whether from a vaccine or previous infection by the coronavirus. So far the vaccines appear to prevent severe disease and death from the variant.

“The British variant, it’s still susceptible to vaccines and it’s going to spread anyway. But let’s get this one back in the box,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert at UCSF. Read from source….