PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The new and seemingly more contagious variant of the coronavirus, that first appeared in the U.K., is spreading in the U.S. Colorado and California each have a confirmed case. While it hasn’t been reported in Florida, a USF scientist says it’s likely the new strain is already here.
“So if it’s already in Colorado and California, it’s probably already here in Florida," said Dr. Michael Teng, a virologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of South Florida.
While the variant appears to be more transmissible it is not any more deadly.
“It's here but it’s not something to freak out about," said Dr. Teng.
Health experts say our vaccines should be about as effective in handling the variant as our current strain of the virus, once the general public is inoculated. But there is a big concern.
“We aren’t actually doing much active surveillance for this right now," said Dr. Teng.
Colorado and California officials used genetic sequencing to discover the new strain but this type of screening is not as widespread in the U.S.
"The UK has put a lot of effort into it and done a pretty good job of sequencing like 7% of all of their cases. The U.S, on the other hand, has sequenced about 0.3%. That's 20 times less than the U.K," he said.
Dr. Teng cites the latest data from the GISAID Initiative, which provides a provides open-access to worldwide genomic data of the coronavirus.
Sequencing is a powerful tool in the fight against the coronavirus. It allows scientists to trace and control the virus. They could pinpoint how it is that a type of virus led to an outbreak and figure out a plan to contain it by the community. It also allows them to see how the virus has changed and whether a mutation negatively impacts the effectiveness of our current vaccines.
"We're the world leader in advanced genomics research [but] for the number of cases that we have, the U.S. is something like 43rd in the world in sequencing genomes," said Dr. Teng.
It's like flying without radar.
“The next variant might be one of those variants that we really don't want in our community, ones that may cause the vaccine to lose some of its effectiveness. That would be really bad. We're fully capable of detecting it. But if we're not looking for it. We're never gonna find it," he said.
He says the U.S. already has the brilliant minds and technology to keep up with U.K.'s output.
“It's not the lack of capability in the United States. It's the lack of a really well-defined program that has strong leadership, and an impetus to do this," he said.
Dr. Teng believes it's up to the American public to press leaders for more sequencing.
“What we want to do is to try to tell leaders to get on it, and really do some tracking because we really need to be able to track," he said.
On Thursday, December 31 the FDOH confirmed a case of the new variant in Florida.
Florida has evidence of the first identified case of the UK COVID-19 variant in Martin County. The individual is a male in his 20s with no history of travel. The Department is working with the CDC on this investigation. We encourage all to continue practicing COVID-19 mitigation.— Florida Dept. Health (@HealthyFla) January 1, 2021