The dashboard at Public Health gives a snapshot of the SARS-CoV-2 variants circulating in Santa Barbara, most recently showing a predominance of the U.K. mutation among the small quantity of samples. | Credit: Santa Barbara County Public Health Department

In an unexpected reversal, the COVID-19 variant first spotted in the U.K. appears to be outpacing the spread of the West Coast variant in Santa Barbara. This is a trend opposite to the first set of variant results posted last week at the Public Health dashboard.

The latest set of coronavirus samples that have undergone genetic sequencing at UC Santa Barbara show twice as many of the more deadly U.K. virus than the West Coast virus. The prior week, no U.K. virus had shown up in the UCSB study, but the Centers for Disease Control had reported two U.K. cases in Santa Barbara County. Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said on Friday that the CDC’s samples were four weeks old.

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Only a relatively small quantity of coronavirus samples from the county have been sequenced, which is time-intensive and requires painstaking work. As variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 have popped up, doctors want to know if the mutations are more contagious and more dangerous. The U.K. variant is considered to be both. For the West Coast variant, however, while more contagious, it remains unclear whether it causes more death or severe disease. Resistance to vaccine is another concern, and both the U.K. and the West Coast variants respond to the three vaccines available in the United States.

Locally, to speed up the identification of variants, Carolina Arias, a virologist at UCSB, offered to lend her lab and her expertise, and a large collaboration between the university, Cottage Health, and Public Health has been ongoing for about two months. The first results of 37 samples last week showed that 17 were the West Coast variant; zero were the U.K. mutation.

Arias went on to sequence 74 more samples, which ranged in collection time from November to March, and released the results this Wednesday. The samples from 2020, which had been preserved by Cottage lab director Dr. Stewart Comer, showed only the West Coast variant was present through January. In February, out of the 27 samples sequenced, 12 were West Coast, six were U.K., and nine did not contain variants of concern or interest. But of the 11 samples taken in March, seven were U.K. while three were West Coast.

Whether the increase in the more contagious and more deadly U.K. variant in Santa Barbara County will result in a March or April surge remains to be seen. Public Health has advised that wearing a facemask, washing hands, and keeping a distance from others remains a prudent protocol to block these more infectious variants. But many eyes will be on the Public Health dashboard for the next set of results.


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