COVID: California's first cases of South African variant detected in Bay Area

As California's latest COVID surge recedes, new variants of the virus are sprouting up across the state.

Genomic testing labs in California have already identified 159 cases of the more transmissible UK strain and 1,203 cases of the West Coast variants, also known as B.1.429 and B.1.427. And according to Gov. Gavin Newsom, a new strain has spread to California —the South African variant. 

At a news conference on Wednesday, Newsom revealed that the state's first cases of the South African variant were discovered in the Bay Area.

"Two cases have been reported through Stanford. One in Santa Clara County and one in Alameda County," the governor confirmed.

Santa Clara County officials said one of the patients had traveled internationally and that their infectious period started once they were in the South Bay. The patient has since recovered. 

Alameda County officials said their patient is no longer infectious. They are investigating how the person contracted the South African variant.

"We have no evidence of other B1.351 [South African variant] in the county at this time. But we have a limited picture," said Alameda County health officer Dr. Nicolas Moss. 

Health experts in both counties held a joint press conference on Wednesday to address the new COVID developments. 

"We know that this virus will continue to adapt and to change. that’s its job," said Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody.

Experts said the South African variant is 30% to 50% more contagious, but its symptoms and illness are less severe. Officials said information on the presence of variants lags due to time-consuming lab work needed to identify the new strains.
"We’re looking at the genetic code of the virus to identify these mutations that have been described," said Dr. Dean Winslow, a Stanford Medicine infectious diseases specialist.

Health leaders are concerned about the new strains, but not shocked. Dr. Dean Blumberg, a pediatric infectious diseases expert at UC Davis, told KCRA, the virus mutates about two times per month. 
Researchers said FDA-approved COVID vaccinations that are currently being administered are effective against the South African variant. But the drug produced by Oxford-AstraZeneca is less effective.
"In terms of preventing mild to moderate disease, it appears to be less effective. That’s not to say it’s ineffective," said Stanford University Infectious Diseases expert Dr. Jake Scott.
Experts said a surge of COVID variants, similar to last year's viral spread, is unlikely. However, they said it's still a possibility, which is why health leaders stress the continuance of preventative measures and practices, coupled with vaccinations, to end the emerging threat.