SACRAMENTO (CBS SF/AP) — A new and highly contagious strain of the coronavirus that has forced new shutdown orders in England has now been detected in San Diego County, health officials confirmed Wednesday.
Moments before a Facebook chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci Wednesday afternoon, California Governor Gavin Newsom was told the strain had been detected among those being tested for the virus in Southern California.
“Just an hour or so ago, we were informed that this new variant, this new strain, that we have identified from the United Kingdom and some other parts of the globe, identified in Colorado yesterday, has been identified here in the state of California in Southern California,” Newsom said.
Later Wednesday, health officials in San Diego County said the new COVID variant was confirmed in a male patient in his 30s. The patient has no history of recent travel and was isolating at home. One member of the man’s household was also exhibiting symptoms and was being tested.
U.K. scientists estimate the variant spreads 70 percent more easily than the main strain in the United States. Fauci told Newsom he expected to see it turning up in California and other locations in the U.S. and urged residents to remain calm.
“Governor, first of all, I’m not surprised that you have a case and likely more cases in California,” Fauci said. “We likely will be seeing reports from other states, Colorado was the first to do that. I think you going to start seeing it because if you have that much of a prominence in the U.K. with all the travel not only directly to the United States but through other countries intermittently. Like when you go from U.K. to France, France to the United States et cetera. Then Canada has cases. So I don’t think the Californians should feel that this is something odd.”
“This is something that is expected,” he added.
Fauci said health officials in England have been sharing info on the new strains with medical experts around the world.
“There is a lot we know about it (the new strain) because our British colleagues have been studying it carefully,” Fauci explained. “And there are things we will soon learn more about it literally in the days and weeks that go by. It looks pretty clear from the UK group that in fact, the transmissibility of this new mutant is more efficient … Namely it’s able to bind with the receptors on cells better therefore it is transmitted better.”
Calling it a predictable development, Fauci urged calm regarding the new variant’s arrival in California, saying while it is more transmissible, there is no evidence that it is more virulent. More importantly, he says the new strain has the same weakness as the normal one.
“It doesn’t seem to evade the protection that is afforded by the antibodies that are produced by vaccines,” Fauci explained.
Still, Fauci said, federal health care officials are carefully monitoring any and all information coming in about the new strain.
“We are working on it here at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and a number of other laboratories throughout the county,” he told Newsom. “To all my California friends, they have to realize this is an RNA virus, the makeup of it is RNA. RNA virus make a living out of mutating. They love to mutate. The more you replicate, the more you mutate. So when you have a lot of virus that is circulating in the community, it means it’s infecting a lot of people. It’s replicating a lot and when you replicate, you mutate.”
“The overwhelming majority of mutations are irrelevant,” he continued. “They don’t have any impact on any important function of the virus. Every once and a while you get a mutation that does impact a function of the virus. It appears from what we are learning from the UK and from what we’ll prove here is that this particular mutation does in fact make the virus better at transmitting from one person to another.”
Fauci went on to give an update on the country’s effort to get the vaccination process up to speed. He acknowledged that the early pace has been slower than he had hoped, but said he spoke with the General in charge of the operation Wednesday morning, and he’s confident things will improve.
“In any massive undertaking like the initiation of a massive countrywide vaccine program you’re going to get some bumps in the roads and some hiccups,” Fauci said. “As we get into January, the feeling is that we are going to gain momentum to be able to catch up.”
Which leads to the big question: when will the public at large be able to get vaccinated at will, say, at their local pharmacy? That is probably about 12 weeks away, think springtime. Based on that timeline, Fauci gave his latest thinking on when the pandemic might wind down.
“I believe that if we do the kind of vaccines through April, May, June, July, that by the time we get to the early fall, we will have enough good herd immunity,” Fauci said, “to be able to really get back to some strong semblance of normality.”
The Colorado and California cases have triggered a host of questions about how the variant circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.
The confirmed case in Colorado is a National Guardsman in his 20s who hadn’t been traveling, officials said. He has mild symptoms and is isolating at his home near Denver, while another Guard member has a suspected case. They had been sent last week to a nursing home struggling with an outbreak.
The case in California comes as the state ins consumed by a growing pandemic crisis, including record deaths.
Hospitals are increasingly stretched by soaring infections that are expected to grow in coming weeks. Southern California and the agricultural San Joaquin Valley have what is considered no intensive care capacity to treat patients suffering from the coronavirus. State health officials remain worried about gatherings tied to New Year’s Eve.
© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.