COVID-19: What We Know About the California Virus Variant Surging in L.A.

A roundup of some of the latest COVID-19 scientific studies

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A field hospital tent outside the emergency department of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Community Hospital in Los Angeles, California, January 6, 2021.
A field hospital tent outside the emergency department of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Community Hospital in Los Angeles, California, January 6, 2021.Credit: PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP

The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Virus variant found in California drives SoCal surge

A new variant of the coronavirus, which has been found in Israel, appears to account for the recent surge of cases in southern California, researchers say. The variant, called CAL.20C, accounted for fewer than one in every 1,000 COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles county in July. It was not detected again until October, but by December accounted for 36% of cases, researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles reported on Wednesday on medRxiv ahead of peer review.

The CAL.20C variant is distinct from those discovered in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. It carries five mutations: three in the spike protein, which the virus uses to break into cells, and two in other parts of the virus. CAL.20C has also been detected in northern California, New York and Washington, DC.

Whether it is more easily transmissible or resistant to antibodies than earlier versions of the virus is not yet known. The researchers intend to "mine the data and see how patients do over time," coauthor Jasmine Plummer said. The proliferation of CAL.20C in November and December shows that "we allowed it to emerge during the holidays," she said. "These kind of numbers reinforce that we need to wear masks, socially isolate, and stay home."

"Smell training" advised for lingering smell problems

COVID-19 survivors whose sense of smell does not return to normal should receive a form of "smell rehab" known as olfactory training, experts advise.

Olfactory impairment, or trouble smelling things, is a common after-effect of many types of infections. "Patients with COVID-19 and other infection-related olfactory dysfunction should be guided through olfactory rehabilitation" and should be referred to specialists for other treatments if the training does not help, a panel of experts recommends in a paper published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Olfactory training involves sniffing four specific scents (for example, lemon, rose, cloves, and eucalyptus) for five minutes twice a day for at least three months. With sense of smell problems estimated to affect over 60% of people infected with the new coronavirus, doctors in the UK have made available a free online smell training program called NoseWell, which people can use to try to regain their sense of smell.

Cancer patients face higher risks, should get vaccinated

Patients with active cancers, as well as those in remission, face significantly higher risk of severe COVID-19, according to a new study. Researchers analyzed medical records from 4,816 patients who had been tested for the virus, including 323 with a history of cancer. Cancer patients had more than twice the odds of being hospitalized for COVID-19 and more than five times the risk of dying from the disease, compared to people without a cancer history, researchers reported on Thursday in JNCI Cancer Spectrum.

The extra risks were more pronounced for people whose cancers were not in remission. The findings underscore the importance of social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing for cancer patients, including those in remission, the researchers said. The U.S. National Comprehensive Cancer Network said on Friday that everyone being treated for cancer should be prioritized for vaccination, and their caregivers and other members of the same household should get vaccinated as soon they become eligible.

Eye injuries from hand sanitizers increase among kids

With alcohol-based hand sanitizer available virtually everywhere during the pandemic, there has been a precipitous rise in eye injuries from the disinfectants among children as well as surgeries required to address those injuries, according to a report published on Thursday in JAMA Ophthalmology. In a separate paper in the same issue, researchers point out that parents need to be aware of the risks, particularly in public places, where hand sanitizer dispensers are installed at a waist-level height of an adult but at eye level or above for young children.

The authors of one of the papers advise handwashing at home with soap and water instead of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, teaching children proper use of hand sanitizers, having separate dispensers at shops and malls for children, preferably below face level, and placing caution signs next to sanitizer dispensers.

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