Covid Clinic, an Orange County startup, offers COVID-19 testing in downtown San Diego on May 3, 2021. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A new variant that has caused a surge of COVID-19 cases in India over the last few months has been identified in California and experts say it is only a matter of time before it makes its way to San Diego. 

The Omicron sub-lineage, BA.2.75, was identified in Los Angeles County according to health officials during a press conference earlier this month, following several weeks of rapid spread across India after emerging in late May.

Why this matters

COVID cases are increasing across the country, which has experts worried that this will lead to a rise in severe outcomes such as hospitalization and death.

The first traces of the variant found in California were identified in the Bay Area using samples from mid-June. This strain of coronavirus is currently being monitored by the World Health Organization.

While BA.2.75 has not yet been detected in San Diego, experts predict that the variant’s presence could be identified in the county’s viral load by the end of the month, particularly given high levels of activity between the two areas with minimal mitigation strategies in place.

“People like to get together in the summer in San Diego and the virus is more infectious than all the other variants before,” said Dr. David Smith, chief of infectious diseases and global public health at UC San Diego. “These variants are the most infectious, so it doesn’t take many people together to sort of get the spread going.” 

This comes as San Diego County is grappling with the newest surge in COVID-19 cases caused by different strains of the Omicron variant, BA.4 and BA.5, which pushed the county into the “high-risk” tier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention community transmission tracking system.

“There is a lot more activity now than there was when BA.5 began to poke its head out and certainly there is almost no masking in public these days, which is exactly what the virus is looking for,” said Dr. Robert Schooley, chief of the UC San Diego Health Division of Infectious Diseases. “(BA.2.75) could push through a bit more rapidly than BA.5 did, but it’s just very hard to know until you get a better pattern.”

According to the most recent virus sequencing data, there are 21 confirmed cases of BA.2.75 across seven states, with “hot spots” in California and Washington due to higher numbers of confirmed cases. Experts say, though, that there can be more at this time, given delays in the process due to cost and complications with the scope.

Given the coronavirus’s behavior, some experts expect BA.2.75 or a mutation in the same lineage might be the new variant facing the United States in the expected fall and winter surge.

“It takes a while for it to kick off,” said assistant dean of research at the New York Institute of Technology in Arkansas, Dr. Rajendram Rajnarayanan. Rajnarayanan has been tracking the sub-variant through viral sequencing over the last several months.  

“I don’t find a big threat right now from BA.2.75 in the USA,” he continued. “But this variant is emerging and when something is given an uncontrollable spread, it’s picking up more mutations.”

Whether or not BA.2.75 initiates another surge in cases will come down to a competition of infectivity — if it is better at infecting someone who might have some built up immunity compared to other strains that might be circulating.

Scientists are unsure how BA.2.75 will fare with the current strain of virus dominating the spread of virus across the globe, BA.5. While the two share similarities, experts are uncertain whether or not this variant is equally as transmissible or more pathogenic.

The makeup of this new variant suggests to some scientists that it is even more fast-moving and skilled at evading antibodies than its predecessors, since the strain has unique mutations in the spike protein that allow it to bind to cells better compared to other Omicron strains.

But it is still too early to tell whether or not this version of the virus is better at causing disease compared to the current dominant strains, as the countries that currently have the highest rates of infection of the BA.2.75 variant have not seen as many cases of BA.4 and BA.5. 

Experts say more of the virus would need to be seen in order to figure out whether or not it can beat out the current strains spreading.

“There’s always an overlap,” said Smith. “A ‘new kid’ comes on the block, the ‘new kid’ may or may not make it. We’ve seen it over and over…with each one of these new (dominant variants), that means that they were, by definition, more infectious than the old ‘kid’.”

COVID-19 cases in San Diego County have steadily increased since May, with BA.4 and BA.5 pushing case numbers even higher as they gained traction.

The county has confirmed 10,536 positive cases the week of July 10, with an additional 12,528 cases being recorded between July 14 and July 20. As many as 2,594 cases have been reported on a single day in July thus far, with seven days reaching numbers over 2,000.

Experts say that these numbers are most likely an undercount, given the prevalence of at-home testing and high levels of the virus being tracked through wastewater sampling data.

While hospitalizations and deaths remain low compared to other waves, the county confirmed 17 deaths since July 14. Of those deaths, 14 were fully vaccinated and all were over the age of 50 with underlying conditions.

Summer activity has heavily impacted these rates of transmission, combined with minimal safety precautions in place at a county-level. Experts say that, given the tempo at which activity has been occurring, it is highly unlikely that cases will fall if BA.2.75 takes over from BA.4 and BA.5.

“I don’t have any real sense that we’re gonna get down to a small number of cases before BA.2.75 comes along with the current levels of activity,” Schooley said. 

County officials and experts are stressing that people ensure that they are up to date with their vaccinations and continue to exercise caution while going about their lives by wearing a mask while indoors and avoiding large gatherings whenever possible to avoid severe outcomes from infection.

“When we’re having surges like this, it makes sense if you want to avoid getting infected to throw a mask in your car,” Schooley continued. “When you’re inside with a bunch of people that are not part of your family, throw a mask on until viral activity dies.”

Experts foresee that new variants will continue to pop up as the pandemic continues.

“We just always have to be vigilant to look at these new variants that pop up and what kind of disease they cause,” Smith said. “We are seeing more and more variants come across and the virus is continuing to be infectious.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Danielle Dawson is a former reporting intern for inewsource through a partnership between the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Institute for Nonprofit News. Originally from San Diego, she joined the newsroom after graduating from Columbia University with a master’s degree in...