TAMPA, Fla. — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting a case of the Brazil P.1 coronavirus variant in Florida.
According to the CDC website, Florida is one of only four U.S. states to report the variant, which was first identified in travelers from Brazil.
The Florida Department of Health told ABC Action News the P.1 variant was identified in Miami-Dade County. No further details were given.
What we know about P.1
"P.1 was first identified in travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan, in early January," according to the CDC. "This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies."
I’m more concerned about the Brazilian mutation than I am about the UK mutation," said Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a distinguished professor at the University of South Florida. “It is continuing to mutate right so it may throw something else on top of the Brazilian mutation, and give us something where the vaccines are no longer really effective and that keeps me up at night. That's what I really worry about.”
The variant was first detected in the U.S. in a person who recently traveled from Brazil to Minnesota at the end of January 2021.
As of Friday morning, five cases of P.1 have been reported in the United States.
P.1, according to the CDC, is among the variants that spread more easily and quickly. This, in turn, can lead to more COVID-19 cases and "put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths."
Dr. Unnasch says keeping up with variants is like playing a serious game of whack-a-mole.
“Viruses are totally stupid. They don't have a brain at all," he said, “They're not very good at doing very much but what they do they do very, very well. And that makes them a really formidable foe.”
According to Unnasch, one advantage with coronavirus as a whole is that it doesn't mutate as fast as the flu virus does.
"So it's going to move a little bit slower and we're going to be a lot more nimble, in terms of developing vaccines that will attack these new escape mutants," he said.
New USF study
Unnasch believes the UK variant will be the dominant strain in Florida within a month. Research shows the current COVID-19 vaccines protect against it. But that may not be totally the case with the B.1 strain. In fact, the increased vaccinations will actually pressure the virus to mutate.
USF just launched a genomic sequencing study to track mutations and how often they are popping up in Tampa Bay.
“We're going to be really nimble and we're going to be able to attack these things really, really fast," he said.
Unnasch is leading a small team of researchers and students. Right now, they are analyzing their first 70 samples in partnership with Tampa General Hospital. By the end of the study, they expect to analyze several hundred samples.
Unnasch says, just at the scale of the university, research like this can help them determine how seriously the variants are spreading on campus and determine whether mandated social distancing or lockdowns are necessary. On a global scale, such research can help companies like Pfizer and Moderna tweak their vaccines within a matter of days to weeks.
“So we're in a really good position to beat this doggone thing but it's not [going to] roll over and die immediately you know after the first punch it's going to come back for a couple of rounds," he said.
Genomic sequencing, however, isn’t cheap. A full analysis can cost between $100-$150 per sample. Right now, the USF team is analyzing just the spike protein of the virus at $10 per sample but Unnasch says they plan to expand the sequencing. He expects the university will spend as much as $20,000 by the end of the study.