In-Depth: Tracking COVID-19 variants in Florida

Posted at 11:26 PM, May 07, 2021

TAMPA, Fl.-- — While the fight against COVID-19 carries on, health experts are working to track mutations of the virus.

This week, the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said though there is progress against cases, hospitalizations, and death, variants are “a wildcard that could reverse this progress we have made and could set us back.”

Health officials are working to scale up sequencing efforts. Last month, the White House announced $1.7 billion dedicated to building a network to help track and combat COVID-19 variants.

“What we know right now is there are a few variants out there that seem to transmit more easily and COVID already is a pretty transmissible virus,” said Dr. Jason Wilson, the associate medical director of the emergency department at Tampa General Hospital. “What we do know is that B117 variant is more transmissible. And indeed in this area what we now see is about 40 percent of our cases are that B117 variant.”

The hospital’s Esoteric Research Lab and USF Health Morsani College of Medicine are performing sequencing tests. Wilson said the hospital is sequencing almost every COVID case that comes to the emergency department.

“The concern about that more transmissible B117 variant is that right now we know that people are sort of starting to return to life out there. Now unfortunately our vaccine numbers are not where we need to get them to. We need to get our vaccine numbers to be much higher to squash this B117 variant transmissibility or the regular COVID transmissibility,” Dr. Wilson said.

The CDC has identified five variants of concern. State data shows all those variants have been identified in Florida.

ABC Action News has worked for week’s to see the state’s COVID-19 variant data. ABC Action News and other journalists around the state used lawyers to obtain the data on our behalf, snapshots we are hoping to get at a more frequent pace.

That data shows through May 5th, around 12,200 variant cases identified as a variant. They spanned all age groups, and including 264 hospitalized and 73 who died.

We turned to USF’s Jason Salemi, Ph.D., who took a look at the numbers and explained it’s hard to compare areas and where there may be more prevalence.

“We don’t know exactly how many cases are being genomically sequenced and we don’t know how that might vary by county,” said Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology in the university’s College of Public Health.

He also noted it’s a small percentage of cases being tested. But he explained some takeaways the data offers about the proportion of variants.

“Of everybody in April who was detected as having one of these COVID-19 variants 86% of those individuals had the B117 as opposed to something else. Second place was the P1, ten percent of those individuals have the P1. And then the remaining 4 percent or so had either the B1429 the B1427 or something else, so again very small proportions of those,” he said.

Other institutions are also keeping an eye on the variants, including the University of Florida.

“We have the UK variant which is spreading widely and the Brazilian variant and the South African variant. And the Brazilian variant, P1, is quite a bit of concern as it’s increasing the most,” said Ira Longini, Ph.D.

Longini is a professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida. He said they’re also watching a variant first detected in India.

“That variant we have a similar concern as we have with the Brazilian and South African variant in that it does looks like it has a reduced immunity, it’s able to have some immune escape, and it could also be more transmissible similar to the UK variant. So it’s a so-called double mutant. So it has mutations that affect both transmission and immunity,” he said.

Longini pointed to the importance of vaccination, like the other experts we spoke to.

“The vaccines are still very efficacious against COVID including the variants. Maybe not quite as efficacious against the variants, but definitely still work,” said Wilson, noting they see very few cases of fully vaccinated patients who have gotten COVID19. “So we know the vaccines work, we need to go out there and get the vaccine so that we can stop the spread of these variants and stop the spread of COVID in general and actually go and do the things we’re being allowed now to go out and do.”