USF researchers keeping a close eye on COVID-19 variants in Tampa Bay

So far, only the variant first reported in the United Kingdom has shown up locally, and measures like mask wearing are keeping it from spreading too fast.
Graduate assistants Dylan Allen and Marisa Garrison work on the genetic sequencing project at the University of South Florida.
Graduate assistants Dylan Allen and Marisa Garrison work on the genetic sequencing project at the University of South Florida. [ TINA MEKETA | Courtesy of Tina Meketa/USF ]
Published Feb. 26, 2021|Updated Feb. 26, 2021

A new study at the University of South Florida will try to better understand variant strains of the coronavirus circulating in the Tampa Bay area.

By studying the genetic makeup of virus samples collected at Tampa General Hospital and the USF Tampa campus, researchers are hoping to provide data that will help local officials make more informed decisions.

So far, the data has been consistent with state records — the variant first reported in the United Kingdom shows up in about 5 percent of samples, while those from South Africa and Brazil have not yet appeared here.

Related: How coronavirus is spreading in Florida

“I prefer (the results) stay boring,” said researcher Tom Unnasch, a professor of epidemiology.

Viruses are bound to mutate, the researchers said, but some are more dangerous and spread more easily than others.

Thomas Unnasch
Thomas Unnasch [ Courtesy of USF Health ]

Before the pandemic, about four major human coronaviruses existed that we often thought of as the common cold, according to USF researcher Edwin Michael. Unnasch is focusing on spike proteins, the part of the virus that binds to human cells and are targeted by the vaccines. Mutations could make it necessary for the vaccines to be altered.

“The more quickly we can identify these variants, the quicker we can react to modifying the vaccine and keeping people protected over the next couple of years or so,” Unnasch said.

Michael, who has been modeling predictions, said Tampa Bay could see the end of the pandemic by mid-August if vaccinations, social distancing and mask wearing all continue at the same rate — and providing a variant strain does not take hold.

Edwin Michael
Edwin Michael [ Courtesy of USF Health ]

An increase in a variant strain could cause a bump in cases. But even if it’s 75 percent more contagious, any rise would probably be half the level seen during the first week of January, Michael said.

It is yet to be seen whether wider distribution of the vaccines will prompt the virus to mutate faster and cause new variants, he said.

The worst-case scenario, he said, would be relaxing social distancing and masking measures before herd immunity is reached through vaccinations. Under that model, Tampa Bay could see upwards of 25,000 new cases a day and hospital systems would be overwhelmed, Michael said.

“That is a big no-no because we’d see an explosion of cases,” he said. “You’d go back almost to the beginning of the pandemic.... What’s stopping it from becoming big is the social measures. That is what is keeping the new variants from spreading. We have to adhere to social measures to give the vaccines a chance.”

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Unnasch said he agrees that the most effective solution to preventing the variants from taking hold is the continued use of masks to prevent transmission.

Related: Have coronavirus vaccine questions? We have answers, Florida.

“If it doesn’t get into your nose, it’s not going to hurt you,” he said. “If you’re never going to get infected by that virus, you don’t have to worry about what that virus is doing. The best way to deal with that is to wear your stupid mask. The aerosol particles — doesn’t matter what kind of virus they are carrying — they’re going to get caught by that mask.”

Unnasch said he plans to keep the study running and provide regular data updates.

“I’m going to keep it running as long as it needs to run, until this stupid virus goes away and I can get my life back again,” he said.