Local novel coronavirus tracking shows that the variant originally found in the United Kingdom has become the dominant one in Santa Barbara County in recent months, surpassing even the strain commonly known as the West Coast variant.
“The United Kingdom variant only showed up slightly for the first time in January, and then in April, the United Kingdom variant actually accounted for the majority of cases in the county,” Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg told Noozhawk.
“What is happening is apparently that the United Kingdom variant is more potent in spreading than the West Coast variant, so it has surpassed and basically eradicated the West Coast variant in the area at this point.”
From October 2020 to April 2021, 70% of the local virus samples collected were identified as the West Coast strain, but since April, 58% have been identified as the United Kingdom variant, according to the county’s variant surveillance data page.
Only a portion of novel coronavirus samples are tested and tracked as part of the surveillance programs.
There were 160 samples tested in April, and 93 of them were identified as the United Kingdom variant, or B.1.17. For the same month, 1,006 people tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Santa Barbara County.
It became clear early on, especially in England, that virus variants played a role in the huge winter surge in COVID-19 cases, Ansorg said.
“This variant sounded kind of scary, so the CDC started surveillance variant testing where they started to test random samples from test results that they already had,” he added.
While UC Santa Barbara and Cottage Health have been tracking local virus samples since October 2020, the county’s variant surveillance data page was recently updated to include routine surveillance conducted by the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between March 2020 and May 2021.
Because the samples were frozen, the CDC, CDPH, Cottage Health, and UCSB were able to unfreeze old samples from months ago to get an idea of what strains were circulating locally, Ansorg said. The new data created a larger sample size that is more representative of the county.
“The United Kingdom variant took over pretty much all of Europe, and that in conjunction with low vaccination rates, was the cause of the surge in Europe,” Ansorg explained. “Viruses mutate all of the time, but some of these mutations get eliminated right away. The United Kingdom strain had more advantages in terms of being more transmissible.”
The United Kingdom strain first appeared in Santa Barbara County in January, and 5.3% of the 95 samples collected over the course of the month were identified as the United Kingdom strain. In the same month, just over 80% of the samples collected were identified as the West Coast strain.
It became clear that the West Coast strain was outpacing the original virus strain in Santa Barbara County in the early months of the year, Ansorg said.
Then in March, the United Kingdom strain began to gain traction locally, as 32.3% of the samples collected over the month were identified as that specific strain, while the West Coast strain accounted for 46.5% of the samples.
In April, the United Kingdom strain officially became the dominant variant circulating, as 58.1% of the monthly samples were identified as that strain and only 26.9% were identified as the West Coast strain.
So far, 55% of all samples collected were identified as the West Coast variant, according to the county’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center.
The P.1 variant, also known as the strain originally detected in Brazil and Japan, showed up for the first time in the county in April and accounted for 6.9% of the monthly samples.
The CDC first located this strain in January, Ansorg said, which he said was concerning because some of the common treatments for severe COVID-19 symptoms were no longer recommended by the CDC for that particular strain. Out of four common COVID-19 treatments, only one could be utilized to treat the P.1 variant, he added.
“In January and February, we were pretty concerned that this strain might take over,” Ansorg said, adding that, fortunately, it has not yet caused much concern locally.
Only 2% of the total samples collected for the county were identified as the P.1 variant, whereas approximately 3% of the statewide samples were identified as that strain, he added.
The county’s variant surveillance page shows that of 858 samples collected so far, nearly 78% were identified as variants of concern, 21% were not identified as a variant of concern or interest, and 1% were identified as variants of interest.
The B.1.351 variant, originally detected in South Africa, was not found in any of the samples, and fewer than 1% of the samples were identified as one of the strains originally detected in India.
“There has been a lot in the press about the variant found in India because India had suffered this horrible surge,” Ansorg said. “We don’t know what the future holds, but at least randomly, none of those strains were found in our community.”
Surveillance testing data typically lags three to four weeks, Ansorg said, so the idea of this testing is to see which strains have been circulating and which continue to remain present in the community.
Ansorg said that he recommends residents get fully vaccinated, by getting the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine or the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, for protection against the circulating variants.
“Identifying the variants that have circulated in our community reminds us how imperative it is to use all the tools at our disposal to prevent their continued spread, including getting vaccinated,” he said.