Bay Area scientists work to identify COVID-19 variants

Health experts are keeping their eyes on new and mutating strains of coronavirus. Now Bay Area scientists have a tool to determine if those strains are circulating in our neighborhoods.

For weeks, scientists have followed the developments of strains in the United Kingdom, Brazil and now South Africa. During the first press briefing under President Joe Biden, the nation's top infectious disease doctor Anthony Fauci warned the South Africa strain could be more dangerous than the others.

A strain, identified as L452R, was linked to an outbreak in Santa Clara County, including Kaiser San Jose, earlier in the year.

Dr. Benjamin Pinksy, associate professor of pathology and of infectious diseases at the Stanford School of Medicine, created a diagnostic test to identify new strains of the virus. He says his tool has even found the L452R strain in the Bay Area.

"We have seen this mutation in some of the sequences we’ve obtained," he said. "We’ve not sequenced a large enough number to really understand the prevalence of this mutation in our population. But it's certainly a mutation and variant to keep an eye on."

Scientists are able to take samples they collect and break down the genetic sequence. WIthin days, they can determine if that strain is a variant and confirm it through further testing.

"It's important to know about these variants and whether they are more transmissible, some of them appear to be, whether they impact the severity of illness, that has not been demonstrated yet, and also if they will impact whether these variants will be neutralized by antibodies," said Dr. Pinsky.

His diagnostic test only identifies the strain; further research would have to determine if a vaccine is effective against the new straings.

Dr. Pinsky believes his test has found other strains of the virus, but more research is required to confirm.