Governor Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that two cases of the potentially vaccine-resistant South African variant of COVID-19 have been found in California — one Alameda County and one in Santa Clara County. And as we know from experts and past experience, this means that the variant may already be fairly widespread.
Health experts and those among the general public who are listening and prone to anxiety have been on high alert as new COVID variants have been insidiously lurking closer to home. And now we have confirmation that the arguable worst of them — a variant in South Africa against which at least one vaccine has proven ineffective — has made it to California, and worse, to the Bay Area.
"As of a few hours ago, we have the first reported cases of South African variants. Two cases have been reported through Stanford, one in Alameda and in one in Santa Clara County," Newsom said during a press conference in Fresno, per KPIX.
The full press conference — which focused on vaccine and equity in the Central Valley — can be seen below, and Newsom's comments begin at the 24:00 mark.
"The issue of variants is top of mind," Newsom said. "We have 159 verifiable cases of the U.K. variant in the state. We have 1,203 verifiable cases of West Coast variants in the state — there are two types of West Coast variants. I said yesterday that we had not identified any resilient variants, and that's true. Yesterday I also said we hadn't identified any South African variants. That's no longer true."
Newsom also talked about the 34% decline in hospitalizations and 28% decline in COVID patients in ICUs, and the dramatic decline from a 14% positivity rate statewide in early January to below 5% today (even though this state website is still saying it was 8.5%, but that is a seven-day average).
The race continues between the spread of these variants and the goal of herd immunity through vaccination — though experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci have been saying that the U.K. variant will be the dominant one here in the U.S., just as it became dominant in the U.K., by sometime in March. That variant has been shown to be upwards of 50% more transmissible than original strains of the coronavirus, so the CDC is now endorsing the use of double masks in public — those disposable surgical masks do not cut it anymore, people.
The South African variant also involves changes to the spike protein in the virus, and it has been shown to be potentially more able to make people severely ill even if they are immune to other variants and/or vaccinated. As a result, South African halted the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine in the country earlier this week, and Scientists in South Africa told people who were previously infected with other variants of the virus remain susceptible to this new one.
On the good news side, Moderna is already at work on a booster shot for the South African variant, and both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have proven somewhat effective at neutralizing the new variants, including the U.K. variant — just perhaps not at the 95% level seen with the original variants.
The first Bay Area cases of the U.K. variant were found last week, six in Alameda County, with two of them being found among students at UC Berkeley.