The day after Christmas last year, as COVID-19 cases burgeoned at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a colleague asked Eric Vail, MD, whether a virus variant first detected in the UK was fueling the surge. Vail, the hospital’s director of molecular pathology, didn’t know. So the colleague, whom Vail describes as a high-level person at the hospital, asked him to look into it.
Less than a week later, Vail was close to finding an answer. “The sequencer was loaded on New Year’s Eve at 11 pm,” he recalled in a recent interview.
The results of his team’s genomic sequencing study surprised them. Out of a random selection of 185 virus samples collected from patients between November 22 and December 28, none matched B.1.1.7, the so-called UK variant. The smaller of 2 main clusters was the predominant SARS-CoV-2 strain. But the larger cluster, making up 36% of the samples, was something different—“a new variant that is homegrown California,” Vail said.