Several readers have written to ask about the California COVID-19 variant. More formally known as B.1.427/B.1.429 COVID-19, the current opinion by Dr. Charles Chiu and others at UCSF is that the variant /1/ spreads more readily than its predecessors /2/ evades antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines or prior infection /3/ has a greater chance of severe illness and death.
One problem during a pandemic is that bad news and more virulent variants dominate the information cycle. That goes back to the consideration that it is not really confirmed cases, probable cases or suspected cases that is the problem – it is that some of the cases evolve into severe illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. So if there were a variant that caused no symptoms, produced useful antibodies and spread quickly, that would be good. But that is not B.1.427/B.1.429. Other variants with similar unfortunate properties have been initially identified in South Africa, Brazil and southern England (including Wales, but not including Scotland or Northern Ireland to acknowledge several readers who felt the variant there should not be described as a United Kingdom variant).
There is a second problem: during a surge the testing rate tends to plateau so one has to be very careful in interpreting confirmed cases per day, as well as probable cases and suspected cases. A third problem is that during a surge hospitalizations and deaths tend to increase reflecting stress on the medical infrastructure so some caution is needed before claiming increased lethality.
/1/ Is this new variant the end of civilization? No
/2/ Is this new variant dangerous? If the early trends hold true, yes
/3/ Should we expect more variants that spread more quickly, are less sensitive to current vaccines and are more deadly? Probably, although there is something of a limit on transmissability. For a vaccine maker B.1.427/B.1.429 and others are a challenge: at what point, if you are SinoVac, do you reproduce lots of B.1.427/B.1.429, cook them, test the result and distribute another version of your vaccine. Is your old vaccine still useful? Similarly, for Pfizer and Moderna at what point do you make another mRNA, test it and distribute another version of your vaccine. Is your old vaccine still useful? A third technology is used for the Sputnik V vaccine from the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Russia: a synthesized adenovirus (cause for the common cold) is combined with the spike protein from the coronavirus. The status of Sputnik V testing is a blog entry in itself.
For now, stick with masks and social distancing. If you are thinking of getting vaccinated, by all means as it will be months before any vaccine for B.1.427/B.1.429 will be ready – if one is made at all. If you have been vaccinated you may well be a candidate for a second vaccination with a new vaccine that prevents newer variants like B.1.427/B.1.429.