California has added a million new coronavirus infections in less than four weeks.
The state became the first in the country this week to record three million total coronavirus infections since the pandemic started a year ago, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. California became the first state to reach 2 million, back on December 24.
The surge in Southern California in the last two months coincides with the emergence of a new strain of the coronavirus, different from the so-called “UK variant,” say researchers from Cedars-Sinai.
Researchers named the new variant in California CAL.20C, and say after identifying just one case in July, it has spread to become nearly a third of COVID-19 cases in the Los Angeles area in November and December.
In their study, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, a team at Cedars-Sinai found the CAL.20C variant, also identified as L452R, in 36% of 192 patients at the hospital in late November and December. They also analyzed more than 4,300 samples from around Southern California and found the variant in about 24% of them.
Researchers believe the CAL.20C variant is “highly transmissible,” similar to the UK variant. Their findings did not indicate whether it is more deadly.
"The recent surge in COVID-19 positive cases in Southern California coincides with the emergence of CAL.20C," said Eric Vail, MD, assistant professor of Pathology and director of Molecular Pathology in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Cedars-Sinai in a written statement.
The California Department of Public Health said the variant was "increasingly" turning up around the state. The Cedars-Sinai team says they have identified it in patient samples recently from Northern California, New York, Washington, D.C. and even internationally, in Oceania.
Public health officials say the new variant was found in a cluster of cases in Santa Clara County, in the San Francisco Bay area.
“This virus continues to mutate and adapt, and we cannot let down our guard. This news underscores the need for everyone to follow all prevention measures and get vaccinated as soon as they are offered the vaccine,” said Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody in a written press release.
More research is needed, say scientists, to understand if this California variant is more deadly, leads to more severe reactions, and how it may affect patients differently.