Several Mutations of the Coronavirus That Causes COVID-19 Detected in Oregon Wastewater

New variants could pose challenges to vaccine efforts, especially if vaccination schedules don’t outpace the spread of more contagious mutations.

Oregon State University announced today that potentially more transmissible strains of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 have been found around the state.

Last week, an OSU lab detected the highly contagious British strain in a sample of wastewater from Bend. In addition, five people on OSU's campus tested positive for L452R, a mutant strain of the coronavirus that's run rampant in California. L452R was also found in wastewater samples from the Corvallis campus.

The California strains have been detected in wastewater samples from Albany, Forest Grove, Klamath Falls, Lincoln City and Silverton, suggesting it has spread widely across Oregon.

"The rise of a new variant is not necessarily cause for alarm," said Dr. Melissa Sutton, the Oregon Health Authority's medical director of respiratory viral pathogens, in an OSU press release. "However, monitoring variants is critical to our understanding of disease transmission, disease severity, the ability to evade testing, vaccine effectiveness and treatment resistance."

L452R was first identified in the U.S. last year. But it didn't raise much concern until earlier this month, when researchers found that the percentage of cases associated with the variant had gone up to 25%, a stark increase from 3.8% in the preceding three weeks. L452R is now associated with several outbreaks in California, including deadly surges in hospitals and nursing homes.

However, it's still too early to tell if the California mutation is actually more contagious—unlike the U.K. variant, which is definitely more contagious. And new variants could pose challenges to vaccine efforts, especially if vaccination schedules don't outpace the spread of more contagious mutations. (Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that the U.K. mutation could become the dominant strain in the U.S. as early as March.)

"It is not surprising that we have detected [L452R]," said Brett Tyler, director of OSU's genome center, in the university's press release. "Since L452R has been around a long time, and is currently widespread in California, it stands to reason that it would likely find its way up here. But it does indicate the importance of the sequencing to keep track of it."