USF epidemiologists studying COVID-19 variants in Tampa Bay

Hillsborough County

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — There are growing concerns in the U.S. as COVID-19 quickly mutates and spreads around the world.

Florida leads the nation with more than 400 cases of the highly-contagious UK variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency also reports that the state now has detected the first case of the Brazil variant.

“Viruses do this all the time,” said Tom Unnasch, distinguished professor of epidemiology with USF and co-director for the Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease Research.

Researchers in the USF College of Public Health have launched a new study to determine how widespread COVID-19 variants are in Tampa Bay.

According to a news release, “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.”

“We are determining what the sequence of the spike proteins, particularly the spike protein that contains all these mutations for the UK variant, the South African variant and the Brazilian variant,” Unnasch explained.

This will help researchers look for potential trends.

“It will allow us to predict if we are likely to see another big outbreak or another big spike. We will then report that to the mayor’s office and county commissioners,” Unnasch said.

Because of mutations, Unnasch predicts new vaccines will need to be constantly developed over the next year or two.

“It’s going to be a game of whack-a-mole. We’re going to hit it here, and then it’s going to pop up over there, and we’ll hit it there, and we will have to play this game for a while,” he said.

With continued safety measures, Unnasch forecasts the pandemic could end in Tampa area by mid-July. He believes it will resemble low incidences of the flu over the long-term.

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