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San Diego County health officials announce new UK strain of COVID-19 has been detected in San Diego

San Diego County officials reported a man in his 30s began feeling unwell Sunday. He was tested for coronavirus on Tuesday.

SAN DIEGO — A new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 was detected in San Diego Wednesday. The B117 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom earlier this month.

San Diego County officials reported a man in his 30s began feeling unwell Sunday. He was tested for coronavirus on Tuesday and researchers determined he had contracted the new strain around 3 a.m. Wednesday.

The man is the first confirmed B117 case in California although health experts believe it is already spreading in the community. He had not recently traveled and did not recently attend any large gatherings. Another person in the man’s home is also showing symptoms of coronavirus and a third person is asymptomatic. Contact tracing is still ongoing.

“This individual had very few other social interactions during the potential contagious period, two days before symptoms began. That’s good news. Going back two weeks the number of activities [outside the home] was limited. There was no work activity and no specific gathering activity,” said Eric McDonald, M.D., M.P.H., who heads the Epidemiology and Immunization Services Branch of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. “That, I think, is a strong indicator that…there are other cases in San Diego that we just need to be aware of.” 

The new strain of the virus does not cause any more severe symptoms than other COVID-19 strains that were previously found in San Diego, but it likely spread easier. Mark Ghaly, M.D., the state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, explained it is “stickier” and can bind to the body’s cells easier, which could result in more cases of coronavirus. Approximately 12% of cases end up in the hospital, which could compound the number of patients.

“We need to prepare that this is probably going to be what we’re going to see in the following months coming up. We need to continue the social distancing, we need to continue to wear the face mask to protect ourselves, to protect others as well, and we need to do it better,” said Kristian Andersen, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research.

Scientists believe it is likely the two coronavirus vaccines approved for use in the U.S. will protect against the new strain, but more research is needed.

“We just don’t have the data yet. This is, unfortunately, one of those times where we need to say we just don’t know,” said Andersen. “Speculation is not something I like to do so I will say until we have the data, which I’m hopeful we’ll have in the next couple of weeks, primarily from our colleagues in the United Kingdom, we will know more.” 

COVID Variant Q & A 

How was this variant detected?

Federal, state and local researchers frequently review coronavirus genome samples to find new strains. In this case, researchers were studying three targets found with B117.

“It has this very unique signature where two of three [targets] will be positive on the same sample but one will be negative,” explained Andersen.

Is this the only coronavirus variant? 

No, coronavirus has many mutations and several have already been found in San Diego.

“Coronaviruses mutate all the time. We have seen many mutations previously and this is just that continuation of that,” said Andersen. “What we have observed, especially for the U.K. lineage here is somewhat unusual and that’s why we need to do all these additional experiments, get all this data on how this might actually affect the virus because, again, mutations happen all the time and typically would not change the virus. This is the first or second time that may make it more transmissible.” 

Are there other variations of coronavirus to watch? 

Researchers are studying a variant that was first identified in South Africa. It has not been found in San Diego.

“It has one of the same mutations as the U.K. variant, it’s called N501Y. We have been looking for that as well via these sequencing programs with the county and have not found evidence of it yet. The reason we could detect the U.K. lineage was because of an ‘s dropout,’ which is a little quirk in the diagnostic test that gets done. We can’t do [that] for the South African lineage so it will have to wait until more sequencing has been done,” said Andersen.

Do I need to take any special precautions to protect against the new strain? 

“It doesn’t change what we need to do but it means we need to do it better,” said Andersen. “The things that work for the normal version of coronavirus are also going to work for this particular version of coronavirus. It’s still the same virus. It's not different it’s just that this new lineage may be transmitting a little better. We really need to double down on these measures we can all do to stop the transmission.” 

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