Los Angeles County scientists have begun to test samples of the coronavirus from local patients to determine if a new, more contagious strain that is circulating in Britain has arrived, as some officials believe is likely amid a major surge of infections.
The variant is a concern because it makes the virus easier to be transmitted from one person to another, officials said. But once a person has the virus, the variant doesn’t appear to make the person more likely to die.
L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said a public health laboratory has begun to do gene sequencing to test virus samples collected in L.A. County, but it will take about a week to finish the process.
COVID-19 has been surging out of control in Los Angeles County and other parts of California, overwhelming hospitals and killing more people each day. On Thursday, L.A. County saw its highest number of COVID-19 deaths in a single day: 140.
The spread has been so breathtaking since Thanksgiving, when many families defied public health guidelines and gathered in large groups, that some have wondered if something about COVID has changed. Officials believe the spike has been worsened by holiday gatherings, but are also concerned about other factors, including people going out to shop.
“When I spoke with the state Department of Public Health, they indicated that they’ve been looking and didn’t think they had seen” the new strain, Ferrer told The Times in an interview. “But you know, you have to know what you’re looking for. So I think everyone at this point that’s seeing these kinds of surges is obviously looking to see, ‘Do we have that particular variant?’”
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said a new variant of the coronavirus could be a factor in the recent explosion in coronavirus cases, as well as other factors, including pandemic fatigue, holiday gatherings and winter weather, which may be more conducive to transmission.
“This happened devastatingly quickly. Everybody I talked to said this acceleration was beyond any model and any expectation, so then people say ‘What broke down?’ and I’ve got to think it’s partly the strain that was out there,” Garcetti said in an interview with The Times on Wednesday.
A memo issued by the L.A. County Department of Public Health on Christmas Eve asked labs to review recent data from positive coronavirus tests to be on the lookout for a specific gene detection pattern, as well as any unusual molecular patterns.
“Scientists are working to learn more about this variant to better understand how easily it might be transmitted and whether currently authorized vaccines will protect people against it. At this time, there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death or that available vaccines will not be as effective,” the memo said.
Scientists have identified this new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus detected in Europe and South Africa, a discovery that led government officials to renew lockdown measures across much of England and caused a number of countries around the world to announce bans on incoming flights from Britain.
The United States stopped…