UCSB partners with local health officials to monitor COVID variants
To get ahead of the COVID variants, UCSB, Cottage Health and the county Public Health Department launched parallel, collaborative variant surveillance projects.
One part of this monitoring effort will focus on the UCSB community alongside its ongoing asymptomatic surveillance program.
People scheduling a testing appointment through the Student Health Patient Portal will be given an opportunity to learn about the research project. If they wish, they can consent to have a portion of the sample they provide for their test be reserved for sequencing in the event their sample tests positive.
“In addition to just basic science interest, knowing more about these variants could also influence our testing strategies, and that could also impact what you could expect about vaccine effectiveness,” said UCSB biologist Stuart Feinstein in a news release.
Cottage and County Public Health’s efforts include a Local Variant Task Team focused on the wider Santa Barbara County community. Their ongoing research focuses on both randomly selected samples and cases where a new variant may be more likely, such as patients with infection after being vaccinated, a sample taken from an outbreak setting or a person returning from an area with high levels of variants of concern.
Positive samples collected by either entity will be sent to UCSB virologist Carolina Arias’ laboratory for genetic sequencing and variant detection.
Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease specialist at Cottage Health, shared in one of her video updates on Tuesday the COVID variants of concern.
She listed the following numbers of these variant cases in California: 206 positive cases of the B.1.1.7 variant; two cases of the B.1.351 variant; zero cases of the P.1 variant (which she mentioned is concerning since it proved to cause a surge in individuals who had already fallen sick with COVID prior); 1,088 cases of the B.1.427 variant; and 2,771 cases of B.1.429. B.1.427 and B.1.429 are considered the “West Coast variants.”
However, she said, “We don’t have conclusive evidence that these variants of concern are dramatically more infectious or are associated with increased severity of illness, but again, I think there’s more to be learned and more to come, probably within the next one or two weeks.”
Dr. David Fisk, medical director for infectious disease control and prevention at Cottage Health, told the News-Press that vaccines are the best line of defense against these variants.
“With the variants that seem to be circulating around the world, the evidence seems to be pointing toward that vaccines in general that have protective effects, if not a full amount of protection that they offered before certain variants arise, are still offering good levels of protection to just about every variant that’s been encountered so far, which is a real positive thing we’re learning,” said Dr. Fisk, who also works for Sansum Clinic.
He added that the flexibility of the vaccine manufacturers is also encouraging.
“The ability of the manufacturers to rapidly modify their vaccines to still be active against the variants is good,” Dr. Fisk said. “The fact that … the companies won’t have to go back to the drawing board and start over to retest modified vaccines, I think, is an important safety advance in our future ability to fend off any possible aggressive variant.”