California variant found in St. Joseph County could impact recovery efforts

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. --- The B.1427 COVID-19 variant, which was initially detected in California, has been confirmed in St. Joseph County. The new variant could be a challenge in recovery efforts, according to local health officials. 


“It’s not as contagious, it doesn’t seem, as the UK variant, the B.1.1.7 variant that’s already been identified here, so that’s good news,” St. Joseph County Deputy Health Officer Dr. Mark Fox said. “And yet, it also appears to be more resistant to the approved vaccines than the other variants.”  


The B.1.1.7 strain, which was initially detected in the UK, was found in St. Joseph County on March 11. Research suggests the UK variant is more contagious, but does not increase the risk of serious complications or the need for an ICU, or the risk of death, according to health officials. The available vaccines do appear to be effective against the UK variant, according to Fox. 


The California variant, however, does not seem to be more contagious, but it does appear to be more resistant to vaccines, according to Fox. 


The Indiana State Department of Health monitors positive samples through surveillance testing. There are two ways surveillance testing is conducted, according to Fox. Fox said a sample can be submitted because there is something unusual about a particular case or it is just done randomly.  


“But it takes weeks to get the sequencing data back,” Fox said. “And so, you know, we got the sequencing result that confirmed the presence of a variant, but it’s really from a sample from probably a month ago.”    


That means the person related to this California variant case was likely tested one month ago, with sample data coming back as early as two weeks and up to six weeks old, according to Fox. Therefore, the B.1427 could have been present in St. Joseph County for a length of time prior to the latest data confirmation. 


“And that’s the risk, especially as we see our case numbers going up,” Fox said. “Our seven-day average of cases is up 40% since the beginning of the month, our hospitalizations have doubled over the course of about a week.”  


It is early to speculate, but Dr. Fox said there is a unique advantage to the way the approved vaccines were created. There is an opportunity for changes so that vaccines can be more responsive to some of these mutations, according to Fox.


“So there is some advantage in that it’s not going completely back to the drawing board to create a whole new vaccine, fortunately,” Fox said.  “I think, you know, even though this one is maybe more resistant to the vaccine, vaccination effort is still our best path forward to reduce the viral transmission and creating the circumstances that allow the variants to flourish.” 


There may come a time when health officials have to recommend enhanced mitigation efforts, such as double masking or increased social distancing, according to Fox. However, Fox said there is no change in recommendations, but health officials are increasing the amount of surveillance testing for variant stains in Indiana. 

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