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Newly identified COVID-19 strain in Los Angeles could be driving region's virus surge, study suggests

LA becomes first county to hit 1 million COVID-19 cases
"They're filled with sick people": LA becomes first county to hit 1 million COVID-19 cases 01:45

A newly identified strain of the coronavirus prevalent in Southern California could be contributing to the drastic spike in cases in the region, according to new research released Monday. The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, found that more than a third of recent COVID-19 patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles were infected with the strain, according to a release summarizing its findings. 

The strain, known as CAL.20C, includes five types of recurring mutations. The release said it's not yet clear if it's deadlier than other forms of the virus.

CAL.20C was nearly nonexistent in October — but by December, it accounted for 36% of virus samples from Cedars-Sinai patients and 24% of all samples from Southern California, according to the release. The strain has also been detected in Northern California, New York, Washington, D.C., and even Oceania, the release said. 

"The double-digit prevalence of the CAL.20C strain in November and December was striking given that it was first observed in July 2020 in just one of 1,230 virus samples in Los Angeles County and had not again been detected in Southern California until October," said Jasmine Plummer, a research scientist at the Cedars-Sinai Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics and a co-corresponding author of the study.

CAL.20C is distinct from the fast-spreading variant of the virus first identified in the U.K., which is known as B.1.1.7. That strain, which is 50% more contagious than other forms of the virus, has been identified in at least 20 states, according to CBS News' David Begnaud. 

The announcement of CAL.20C comes as Los Angeles County has emerged as a global viral hotspot. One person dies of the virus every six minutes in the county, and there's now such a backlog of bodies that air quality rules have been loosened to allow for more cremations. 

More than 1 million people in the county have been diagnosed with the virus, and nearly 14,000 have died — more than any other county in the nation, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

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