How Northern California’s COVID-19 variant stacks up against the rest

If there’s one thing we can count on in life, it’s change, and viruses are no exception. Variants of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus have popped up in different corners of the world and while that might sound a bit scary it’s actually perfectly normal, or even “humdrum” as one Nature study puts it.

While virologists predicted all along that the virus that causes COVID-19 would mutate, what scientists still don’t know exactly is what these variations might mean for how infectious or deadly the virus is. And while we know a handful of COVID-19 variants have circulated throughout the US pretty much unnoticed by the general public, some variants, particularly the UK and South Africa ones, share some more atypical characteristics that seem to make them more infectious.

Here’s what you need to know about the new mutated versions and COVID-19.

The UK variant (B.1.1.7)

The UK variant of COVID-19—officially known as B.1.1.7—was first identified on December 14, 2020, causing tightened lockdown rules and border control inside the UK and between other countries. The virus has been found more frequently in southern England, and what has stood out to researchers most is the large number of mutations it’s taken on—a whopping 23 shifts from the original COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) that emerged from Wuhan, China in late December 2019.

This variant is now spreading rapidly through the United States, doubling around every 10 days according to one preprint study. “We should probably prepare for this being the predominant lineage in most places in the United States by March,” Kristian Andersen, a co-author of the study and a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute, told the New York Times. Not to mention, this variant may be more deadly and may increase death rates by 30 to 40 percent.

While scientists believe that the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently being distributed will still be effective against this version of the virus and there’s no change in disease severity compared to the original, this version may be more contagious. According to the BBC, this variant has the ability to spread between 50 and 70 percent faster than previous forms of the virus, meaning we might have to amp up lockdowns and other techniques to prevent it from spreading.

“The new variant of the virus transmits considerably more effectively than the previous variant and that means control measures that have worked in the past to contain spread may not work in the future,” said Neil Ferguson, a professor of epidemiology at Imperial College London, in a release.

No one knows for sure what makes this variant more contagious. Some surmise that it might have certain traits that allow the virus to enter human cells more easily. Some preliminary studies also suggest that people with the new variant may have more copies of the virus circulating in their ears, nose, and throat compared to those infected with the original or other variants.

As of mid-February of 2021, the B.1.1.7 variant has been detected in over 70 countries and 33 states.

South Africa variant (B.1.351)

A few days after the discovery of the UK variant, another variant—known as B.1.351—popped up in South Africa that displays some similar mutations. Research has found that this variant also is becoming more dominant than earlier variants throughout the country, nearly replacing the other versions in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. Currently, all international air travel coming into or out of South Africa is prohibited except those flights authorized by the country’s Minister of Transport. However, this variant has been detected in at least eight states in the US, with at least one person hospitalized in New York City.

Similar to the UK variant, the South African variant doesn’t necessarily mean people get more sick, but it certainly appears to be more transmissible.

“We are not helpless in the face of this variant,” Richard Lessells, a clinical researcher at the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies told the Associated Press. “We can change our behavior to give the virus less opportunities to spread.”

Unlike the UK variant, some scientists are worried that B.1.351 may be more resistant to the current vaccines in place due to extensive alterations to the spike proteins. Current mRNA COVID-19 vaccines use these spike proteins as a tool to teach our bodies to recognize, and fight, the virus.

Research is being done to test out the efficacy of the vaccine against this variant, and more information could be available soon. According to Reuters, scientists at BioNTech, the German biotechnology company that partnered with Pfizer to develop one of the vaccines currently in use, say they are testing the vaccines against the new variants and, if needed, can make tweaks in as little as six weeks. It’s still unclear if tweaks to the available vaccines are needed at all, however.

Vaccinations have not yet begun taking place in South Africa. Still, President Cyril Ramaphosa says that an estimated 10 percent of South Africa’s population of 60 million will receive the vaccine in the first months of 2021, according to the A P. As of the end of December, the South African variant has been found in five other countries—the UK, Finland, Switzerland, Japan, and Australia.

The Brazil variant (P.1 lineage)

The P.1 lineage is an offshoot of the B.1.1.28 variant spotted in four people in Japan after a trip to Brazil. It developed late last year in Brazil’s Amazon region, becoming dominant there, and in surrounding South American cities. As of January 2021, the variant has also now been found in parts of Europe, as well as in Oklahoma and Minnesota in the United States.

A close cousin to South Africa’s B.1.351 variant, the Brazil variant has similar mutations, including what virologists have dubbed the E484K mutation, which affects the spike protein and may make it trickier for for certain vaccines to provide maximum effectiveness. Another major worry, reports NPR, is that of reinfection rates. The number of mutations on P.1 variants can theoretically help the virus evade antibody response, which may be why Manaus, Brazil is seeing a resurgence of this particular strain, despite already having a huge outbreak a year ago.

“If you were to ask me right now, what’s most concerning of all the things that I’ve heard so far, it’s the fact that they are reporting a sudden increase in cases in Manaus, Brazil,” University of Massachusetts virus expert Jeremy Luban told NPR. “Manaus already had 75 percent of people infected [in the spring of last year].”

Another new UK variant (B.1.525)

A new report released on February 15 by researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland has detailed another UK-based variant dating back to December. The new variant has already been spotted in 11 different countries, including Canada, Denmark, the US, Ghana, and Australia. Similar to the B117 variant, the South Africa variant, and the Brazilian variants, this variant includes the E484K mutation on the spike protein.

“We don’t yet know how well this [new] variant will spread, but if it is successful it can be presumed that immunity from any vaccine or previous infection will be blunted,” Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told the Guardian.

The Northern California variant (B.1.427, B.1.429)

Virologists are investigating a variant that has now become the predominant strain in California. The mutation—known as L452R—isn’t entirely new. Researchers first identified it in Denmark back in March of 2020, and it quickly spread to other counties, including the United States. However, in the past month, cases linked to the new variant have spiked in Northern California. Researchers there identified it in 25 percent of samples found between mid-December and early January, a leap from less than four percent in the previous three weeks, according to The Washington Post.

Public health officials are still figuring out if this variant is more transmissible or harmful, but multiple large outbreaks in Santa Clara County, located just south of San Francisco, have included this variant, according to a release by the county. Recent research has found that this particular variant is 40 percent more effective at infecting human cells than other variants and can potentially evade our immune systems, according to The New York Times. The recent research was based on work that has not yet been peer-reviewed and will be published online as a “pre-print” shortly.

“This variant carries three mutations, including L452R, in the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to and enter cells, and is the target of the two vaccines that are currently available in the United States,” Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF, said in the release. “Now that we know this variant is on the rise in our local communities, we are prioritizing it for study. Researchers at UCSF and elsewhere will now be able to perform the critical laboratory experiments to determine whether or not this virus is more infectious or affects vaccine performance.”

Still, there is some doubt that B.1.427/B.1.429 is as dangerous as the UK variant, B.1.117, which arrived in California in December. “My suspicion is that the B.1.1.7 will win out,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told the New York Times.

Sara Kiley Watson

Sara Kiley WatsonSara Kiley Watson is an assistant editor at PopSci. Her work has also been featured in NPR and Business Insider. Contact the author here.