SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Amid an exponential rise in COVID cases in India, the so-called “double mutant” strain helping fuel India’s cases has now been found across the U.S., including in the Bay Area and in at least 18 other countries and territories.

The tsunami of cases this week has overwhelmed hospitals in India and prompted the U.S. and other countries to begin sending aid. This week, the Indian army was deployed to transport oxygen and equipment to hospitals straining to provide care. Some areas have provided shocking images of bodies lined up at mass outdoor crematoriums, with workers barely able to keep up in a nonstop effort to meet the demand for funeral pyres.

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It is not clear to what degree the variant, known as B.1.617, has contributed to the current surge in cases which followed eased government restrictions ahead of recent religious and political gatherings. It is one of several variants spreading in India. Hundreds of thousands of new cases have put India behind only the U.S. in total number of COVID infections.

The B.1.617 variant was first detected in India in October and is spreading across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America, according to the World Health Organization.

In the Bay Area, Stanford’s Clinical Virology Laboratory detected the variant after scanning viral genetic sequences from samples gathered from COVID patients being tested and treated at Stanford-run health care facilities.

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The lab’s director, Dr. Benjamin Pinsky, said earlier this month the first confirmed case came from a test sample from Santa Clara County.

Health officials say the India double mutant variant is similar to the Brazilian and South African variants and can change parts of the coronavirus spike protein. The spike protein forms part of the coronavirus outer layer and is what the virus uses to make contact with human cells, bind to them and then enter and infect them.

Local health officials have warned residents of the potential spread of COVID-19 variants. Last month, Santa Clara Public Health Department Director Dr. Sara Cody said that, while the number of COVID-19 cases had plateaued in the county, there were signs of increases.

“The numbers are picking up and right now we’re in a race between the variants and the vaccine,” Cody said. “The top line message is: you are far more protected if you’re vaccinated than if you’re not and the more people vaccinated in Santa Clara County, the safer we are,” Cody said.

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