The more state and federal health officials look for a mutated and highly-contagious strain of the COVID virus in Florida, the more they’re finding it.
Even with relatively scant monitoring for evolved strains of the virus, known as “variants,” federal officials say Florida now leads the country in known cases of the so-called “U.K. variant,” or B.1.1.7, with 46, according to new data released Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up from 22 known cases last week. California has the next highest number, with 40 known cases.
It’s unclear how widespread the variant is in the country, because there isn’t a lot of analysis being done in the U.S. on known COVID cases to find out how often they are caused by the new mutation. Florida is part of a consortium led by the CDC involving 37 state and local public health laboratories, in an effort to track the variant as it becomes more prevalent.
President-elect Joe Biden has called for efforts to identify the variants to be ramped up, proposing more funding for genetic sequencing of the virus just as the CDC warned the more contagious variant could be the predominant strain in the country by March. Scientists look for the mutated strains by selecting positive samples of the COVID virus and analyzing how its genetics have changed compared to the initial versions that first surfaced in the U.S. about a year ago.
When the Florida Department of Health announced that it had discovered the variant 100 miles north of Miami, in Martin County, on New Year’s Day, it had examined about 3,000 samples of the virus for signs of the variant. A spokesperson for the department did not immediately respond to a request on Tuesday morning for an update on its efforts to test for the variant, which the agency has so far declined to explain in detail.
Marco Salemi, a University of Florida professor and molecular biologist, has been calling for the state to expand those limited efforts by collaborating with researchers who don’t work for the health department. He said researchers can only make an educated guess at what percentage of the thousands of daily confirmed cases of the virus in Florida are made up of the variant.
“We know it’s in Florida,” he said. “What percent (of cases) is impossible to say. The genomes we have were likely collected before or at the very beginning of the introduction of (the variant) to Florida.”
Preliminary studies on the contagiousness of the variant have produced startling estimates about the strain being about 56 percent more transmissible. Though scientists are confident so far that the vaccines will still work against the known variants, public health experts have warned that emerging and highly contagious strains of the virus could push the country’s already-strained healthcare systems past their tipping points.
Researchers in South Florida have decided not to rely on federal and state efforts, launching their own hunt for all known mutated versions of the virus in Miami-Dade’s public hospital, Jackson Health System. The search is expected to begin as soon as Wednesday.
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Public health experts have characterized the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus as an unfortunate but predictable consequence of widespread transmission.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said last week that more discoveries of the U.K. variant are also to be expected as surveillance picks up. Health officials, she added, should be “pulling out all the stops” to sample more and more cases of the virus for mutations.
“I don’t believe anyone thinks that this variant is the reason why we’ve had such terrible numbers in the U.S., but this is not a good indicator when you look at if things could potentially be even worse,” she said. “So we’ve got to get vaccines into arms as expeditiously as possible.”
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