Among the mutations the clever coronavirus has developed is one that researchers call the “Eek” variant after its scientific designation E484K. It’s an apt name because the mutant has shown a disturbing ability to evade antibodies, including those induced by vaccines. Fortunately, Eek has not yet been found in Santa Barbara County, but virologist Carolina Arias looked for it very carefully among the most recent set of COVID-19 samples her lab at UC Santa Barbara sequenced.
Like the previous set of tests, the results of which were posted on March 24, those posted today show that the U.K. variant is increasing in Santa Barbara County. Despite its presence, no serious outbreak has occurred here, unlike the B.1.1.7-induced hospitalizations in parts of the United States and across Europe, where some countries have reimposed closures. In the new results posted today, all samples from March, the U.K. variant represented 15 of the 55 samples — the U.K., or B.1.1.7, variant is 50 percent more contagious than the “wild” variety of coronavirus; 25 were the West Coast variant, which has been dominant in Southern California and is 20 percent more contagious; and 15 were variants of lesser concern.
One reason Arias was so carefully examining March’s samples is the newly named “double mutant,” or the appearance of the Eek mutation on the B.1.1.7 variant. Infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons explained that what is now called the E484Q variant was first reported a few weeks ago. “It was a pattern recognized in India,” she said, “the B.1.1.7 variant, which is concerning because of its contagiousness as well as the increase in death and severity of disease, and specific mutations seen in other variants from South Africa and Brazil.” The South Africa variant (B.1.351) and the Brazil variant (P.1) are the ones containing the Eek virus and have shown some resistance to antibodies.
The concerning feature of E484K/Q is apparently its effect on the spike protein, or the prong the coronavirus uses to enter the human cell and duplicate. It enters more easily, and once there, it has shown a degree of resistance to antibodies used in COVID-19 therapies and those developed through vaccines and infection, leading to a potential for reinfection.
Inoculating the public with vaccines is something of a race against the growth of variants — 51 incidents of the South African and Brazilian variants are counted in the state by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), including in neighboring Ventura County. As of Wednesday, the CDPH reported Ventura had one case of the South African strain and five cases of the Brazilian. For the rest, 980 of the U.K. version have been identified in California and over 12,000 cases of the West Coast mutation by the CDPH.
When it comes to matching vaccines against the West Coast virus — which represents 62 of the 166 samples tested in Santa Barbara County so far by UCSB — “Exciting news was published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, from Duke University,” said Fitzgibbons. “They found that the West Coast variant was a very, very good match for the vaccines we currently have available.
“There’s no doubt at all that the vaccines are working,” Fitzgibbons added, noting how overwhelmed Cottage Hospital was just a few months ago with more than 90 patients at one time compared to today’s five patients in COVID-19 isolation. “It’s nothing short of remarkable.”
As the tide of vaccinations has risen — roughly 150,000 individuals have received a dose — deaths and infections have slowed dramatically, especially among nursing homes that endured a horrific number of deaths and illness and whose residents were among the first to be vaccinated.
The age for vaccinations drops to 16 years old across California next Thursday, but Pfizer is about to enter the emergency use authorization process to give the vaccine to 12-15 year olds, Fitzgibbons said. The Pfizer announcement touted a 100 percent efficacy rate among 1,131 adolescents who received the vaccine; 18 in the placebo group of 1,129 became ill. The report also included information on a new study involving 6 month to 11 year olds, which started last month.
That light in the tunnel? It’s growing brighter.
Update, April 9, 2021: The quantity of South African and Brazilian variants found in Ventura County was added to this story.