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USF Epidemiologists Analyze Prevalence Of COVID-19 Variants In Bay Area

CW44 News At 10 - New variants of COVID-19 are emerging across the globe and is leaving many in Florida curious about which strains have been detected locally. Additionally, will current approved vaccines have the ability to combat the evolving virus?

Photo Credit: USF | CW44 News At 10

Researchers in the USF College of Public Health have launched a new study to determine the prevalence of COVID-19 variants in Tampa Bay. They're conducting genomic sequencing of positive pooled samples collected from Tampa General Hospital and USF's Tampa campus and comparing their makeup to the highly contagious variants that have originated in South Africa, the United Kingdom and Brazil, as well as other lesser-known mutations.

"Viruses, as I've said to many people, don't do a whole lot of things, but what they do, they do very well," said Dr. Tom Unnasch, Professor of Epidemiology at USF. Dr. Unnasch and his team of researchers continue to uncover just how prevalent COVID-19 variants are here in the Bay Area.  "What they want to do is mutate to continue to infect us as efficiently as possible," he added.

Dr. Unnasch is looking specifically at the spike protein of SARS-coV-2, which is what allows the virus to invade our cells and cause infection. Vaccines target the spike protein to provide immunity. But as the spike protein mutates, vaccines become less effective. By identifying the presence of specific variants, pharmaceutical companies can make revisions and manufacture new vaccines.

Concerns continue to grow in the Bay Area after the CDC announced in early February that Florida has more than 400 cases of the U.K. variant. Soon after, the Brazil variant was also found in Florida. "Over the holidays, we started to hear about this UK variant that got introduced into Florida. It went from first being detected, to six weeks later, replacing all the other variants that were out that were out there because it was much more infectious," said Dr. Unnasch. "That created a really looming threat that we were facing here in Florida."

Dr. Unnasch and other scientists are currently studying local positive pooled samples in his lab and comparing them to the highly contagious variants originating from South Africa, the U.K. and Brazil. "We're starting to see the viruses mutating to become more effective and more infectious, better at infecting us," he said.

But it's what else they've found that may cause for more concern: "It may be mutating to get around the immune response that is developed after a person has the infection or even, perhaps, being vaccinated," he said.

Photo Credit: USF | CW44 News At 10

With the possibility that a variant could eventually evade the vaccine, the next question is how do we combat it from happening? Dr. Unnasch is comparing it to a game of whack-a-mole for the next year or two. "Because, what's going to happen is, we're going to build up a great vaccine, the virus is going to look at it and it's going to mutate to become resistant to that. We'll go back and we'll modify our vaccine several times, four, five six, eight times before we finally exhaust the virus' repertoire in ways it can get around it and at that point, it's basically going to go away."

To our advantage, the current vaccines you're seeing were developed to be quickly modified. But nothing beats extra precautions, according to the doctor. "These new variants are more infectious. But, the only way the virus is a problem for you, personally, is if it gets into your nose in the first place. If you use [a mask or comparable face-covering] the virus gets trapped in that, it never gets in your nose in the first place and I don't care how infectious that virus is," said Dr. Unnasch.

The team of researchers is developing an extension to their research to study how those variants could change the course of the pandemic. He expects to have results within the next few weeks.

While the number of cases reported in Florida has dramatically slowed since the winter surge, experts are concerned about the growing presence of COVID-19 variants in Hillsborough County. Michael says with the continuation of social measures and administration of vaccines, his forecasts indicate the pandemic could end in Tampa Bay by mid-July yet mutate to resemble low incidences of the flu over the long-term.

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