• Sat. Mar 6th, 2021

What to Know About the California Variant

[Read the full story about the California variant.]

My colleague Carl Zimmer wrote more about it this month. So I asked him about where things stand and what he’s watching going forward.

Here’s our conversation:

When you first wrote about the California variant — or CAL.20C, as researchers are calling it — scientists found it in half of samples they collected in L.A. County, up from 36 percent last month. Where do things stand now?

It’s barely over a week since we became aware of this variant, so scientists are still scrambling to identify it and to figure out how it’s trending. It will take a couple more weeks for things to start coming into focus.

What did scientists learn from that increase?

It’s possible that the variant is increasing because it has the right biology to spread faster than other variants. It’s still possible that it’s just getting more common because of chance. But it has mutations that are known to help viruses get into cells and escape antibodies, so we have to take it very seriously.

How does the California variant fit in with the discovery of other variants around the world? (Is it more troubling? Less troubling?)

We don’t know enough yet about the variant to make those comparisons. It could be less contagious or more. It could make vaccines less effective or it could have no impact.

These variants appear to be cropping up everywhere — South Africa, the United Kingdom, Brazil, California and elsewhere. We’re witnessing a planet-wide evolutionary event.

In your reporting on the California variant, what was the most surprising or alarming thing you learned?

California has a fairly good system for surveillance of variants, thanks to some fantastic labs in the University of California system and strong collaborations with public health departments. And yet this variant showed up in California in July and took off in November, but it didn’t come to anyone’s attention till the end of December.

There will be more variants to contend with, and we need a better nationwide system to stay ahead of them.

What are you paying attention to going forward, both with the California variant and the spread of variants more broadly?

I’m starting a spreadsheet to keep track of all the variants.

In California, I want to find out how this variant’s mutations change it, if at all, from its ancestors. I suspect that the scientists there are getting sick of my emails, in which I constantly ask for new results.

Read more:

  • Vaccine makers are updating their plans to address variants. But that doesn’t mean the current vaccines are ineffective. [The New York Times]

  • From smallpox to H1N1, here’s how five past vaccine rollouts went. [The New York Times]

  • Yes, you may want to consider double masking. Here’s more about that, and other things you can do to avoid more contagious variants right now. [The New York Times]

  • State officials went into more detail on the data they used to decide that it was safe to lift strict stay-at-home orders. [The Associated Press]

If you missed it, the move to lift the stay-at-home order statewide on Monday came as a surprise. But many counties were eager to allow businesses to reopen. [The New York Times]


  • An atmospheric river brought more fierce rains to the Bay Area, raising concerns about flash flooding and mudslides in burn areas, causing power outages and prompting evacuation orders. The storm also dropped snow on the Sierra. [The Mercury News]

  • Some parts of the Sierra could see more than eight feet of snow by Friday. [NBC Bay Area]

Read more about atmospheric rivers. [The New York Times]

  • Five days after a woman posted on Instagram an allegation that Burger Records fostered a culture of sexual predation on teenage fans, the indie label folded. But it wasn’t the end of the story. [The Los Angeles Times]

  • A member of the Proud Boys who was elected to the Sacramento County Republican Party’s Central Committee has been told to resign, after the party initially defended his right to run. [The Sacramento Bee]

If you missed it, read more about the role of the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group, in the Capitol riot. [The New York Times]

  • In a long contested move, San Francisco’s school board voted to remove the names of 44 schools that honored people with connections to slavery, oppression and racism. Critics said the process was rushed and driven by emotion rather than research. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

  • The Jungle Cruise at Disneyland is getting an update, after years of criticism that its depiction of Indigenous people is racist. The ride is one of the remaining original attractions at the park, which opened in 1955. [The Orange County Register]

  • The Book Review is 125 years old. As part of the celebration, here are 25 famous writers’ reviews of other books. [The New York Times]

  • “This pandemic has opened our eyes to how things need to change going forward, forever.” The closure of restaurants across the country has been wrenching. But it’s also been a time for entrepreneurial chefs to start tiny pop-ups, turning Instagram into the world’s greatest takeout menu. [The New York Times]


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.