By Elizabeth Cook

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) – Public health specialists are raising a red flag about a strain of the coronavirus now circulating in the Bay Area and California.

Now, more than ever, they are urging the public to follow public health guidelines and when it’s your time, to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

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All viruses mutate, but the surges and large number of infections circulating in the community are accelerating the development of these variants.

This variant now at the center of attention was identified as L452R. It was first noticed and recorded in Denmark, last March. One case was recorded in Alameda County, in May. It was considered very rare until recently.

“This variant is a sign that we don’t have this pandemic under control and we need to do everything we can to bring it under control and limit cases,” explained UCSF virologist Dr. Charlies Chiu.

Since the very beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Chiu has tracked the coronavirus, analyzing the genetic fingerprints of specimens taken from infected individuals and hunting for any troubling mutations. He’s now seeing L452R on the rise.

“We have a variant that was pretty uncommon prior early December, that since then is now roughly 25 percent of all cases that we’re sequencing”, noted Dr. Chiu.

In Santa Clara County, the variant is now linked to the Kaiser San Jose outbreak on Christmas Day, as well as in jails and nursing homes.

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“We have had a number of large outbreaks and this variant has been identified in those outbreaks,” said Santa Clara County Health Director Dr. Sara Cody.

It’s unknown if the variant is actually more contagious or if there’s an impact on the effectiveness of the vaccine. There are suggestions, but no hard evidence. Even so, doctors are concerned.

One of the hallmarks of the L452R variant is a mutation on a very critical region of the virus called the spike protein and the binding site of it. The virus uses its spike to bind and gain entry into human host cells. As part of an immune response primed by the COVID-19 vaccine, antibodies against the spike protein are produced to block the virus from binding and gaining entry. The data on this new variant and any potential impact on vaccine effectiveness is very preliminary. But scientists need to find out and do a deeper dive in to the particulars.

Take for instance an outbreak that is linked to the new variant. Did the variant itself cause the proliferation of cases among others or could the outbreak be the result of a super spreader event?

What is known is that viruses adapt and mutate as long as they live and find viable hosts. Surges and community spread allow these variants to emerge in the first place.

“The best way to control the emergence of new variants is to control the pandemic and limit the number of cases,” said Dr. Chiu.

The virologist says it doesn’t matter if you’re asymptomatic or symptomatic. Every host or body that’s infected with the virus turns into a COVID-virus making machine. The virus has not mutated enough to invade a properly worn mask. Cut off access to the host, and you gain the upper-hand on the virus.

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The idea: reduce infections through public health measures and if you’re eligible and it’s your turn, get a COVID vaccine. Vaccinations will hopefully bring us all to the level of herd immunity and life may then soon return to normal.

Elizabeth Cook