Highly Contagious COVID Variant Identified in California Region with 0% ICU Capacity

California Governor Gavin Newsom said a new COVID-19 variant that health experts believe is highly contagious was confirmed Wednesday in a patient in Southern California.

Newsom confirmed the patient's diagnosis during a Facebook Live conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The governor said during a news conference earlier on Wednesday that the Southern California region currently has an ICU capacity of 0 percent.

"An hour or so ago, we were informed that this new variant, this new strain—that we've identified obviously from the United Kingdom, some other parts of the globe, identified in Colorado yesterday—has been identified here in the state of California, in Southern California," Newsom told Fauci.

Southern California coronavirus variant
California Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday the new COVID-19 variant known as B.1.1.7 has been identified in a patient in Southern California. In the photo above, a clinician communicates a COVID-19 patient's needs from inside an isolation room in the ICU at Sharp Grossmont Hospital on December 14, 2020 in La Mesa, California. Mario Tama/Getty

"I'm not surprised that you have a case, and likely more cases, in California. And we likely will be seeing reports from other states," Fauci said, pointing to high levels of travel reported in recent days in connection with the winter holidays. "I don't think that the Californians should feel that this is something odd. This is something that's expected."

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference the patient to whom Newsom referred was identified in San Diego County.

"I can confirm that case is in fact in a patient in San Diego County," Fletcher said. The patient, a 30-year-old man who did not have a recent travel history, began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms on Sunday and was tested for the virus on Tuesday.

"Because there is no travel history, we believe this is not an isolated case in San Diego County, and there are probably other cases of this same strain in San Diego County," Fletcher said.

The new variant began alarming health experts around the world earlier this month when it emerged in patients within the United Kingdom. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the new variant, known as B.1.1.7, accounted for about 60 percent of the virus cases recently reported in London. The variant has also been identified in patients in Canada and a handful of European countries.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis confirmed the first U.S. case of the new variant on Tuesday. Polis said the patient, a man in his 20s who has since been identified as a member of the Colorado National Guard, had no recent travel history. A second case in Colorado is suspected but has not yet been confirmed.

Fauci said researchers in the U.K. are looking into the new variant but so far do not believe it is more deadly than the original virus strain.

"It's able to bind to the receptors on cells better, and therefore is transmitted better," Fauci told Newsom. "There's no indication at all that it increases the virulence—and by virulence, I mean the ability to make you sick or kill you."

Fauci said U.K. researchers so far do not believe that the variant is immune to COVID-19 vaccines. Two vaccines, one each from Pfizer and Moderna, are in distribution throughout the U.S. after the Food and Drug Administration approved them for emergency use earlier this month.

The new variant "doesn't seem to evade the protection that's afforded by the antibodies that are induced by vaccines," Fauci said.

Newsweek reached out to the CDC for comment and will update this article with any response.

This story has been updated with additional information and background.