BERKELEY – A pair of UC Berkeley students has tested positive for a more contagious strain of the coronavirus first found in the United Kingdom, the university announced Thursday.
The cases were among half a dozen new or suspected cases of the variant, called B.1.1.7., reported by Alameda County earlier this week, the university said in a news release.
The university said the strain appears to be 50 percent more infectious than earlier variants. While the strain is not known to be more deadly or cause more severe disease, experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci say it could make a vaccine less effective if it becomes dominant.
More than 540 cases of the variant have been found in 33 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but these are the first cases to be identified in the Bay Area. The first U.S. case was announced on Dec. 29, but the earliest known cases stretch back as far as mid-December, CNN reported.
The World Health Organization said the strain has also been found in at least 80 countries and territories.
Testing company Helix told CNN the variant is on the rise in the United States and could become dominant in hot spots like Florida and Southern California “within weeks.”
“The rate of growth here in Florida and Southern California looks a lot like the type of growth that we have seen previously in the UK and Denmark … where B.1.1.7 became the predominant variant strain pretty quickly,” Helix President Dr. James Lu said.
The UC Berkeley cases of the strain were discovered by a team of researchers who are sequencing virus-positive samples obtained during symptomatic and asymptomatic testing of all onsite students, faculty and staff, the university said. The students reported symptoms and were tested on Jan. 19 and Jan. 21. Contact tracing revealed they had recently arrived in the United States from aboard, and were connected.
The university said there was no indication the students had been on campus except for testing.
“It is unfortunately no surprise that this and other variants are being detected locally, given the extent of viral spread happening currently regionally, nationally and internationally,” said Dr. Anna Harte, medical director at the college’s University Health Services.
“With more viruses circulating, emerging strains that are more transmissible will tend to dominate,” she continued. “What is more concerning is whether they may become resistant to our vaccines, and how lethal they are. The more efficiently we can contain the spread, the better chance we have of nipping this in the bud. It is absolutely critical that people be even more careful than they have been before during this pandemic so that we can vaccinate and protect those who are most at risk of becoming seriously ill.”
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