TGH lab picks apart COVID-19 variants as they pop up around the world

Tampa General Hospital has one of a few labs in the country doing research on coronavirus variants. The hospital is sharing their information with a global network to learn about how the virus is changing. 

"We constantly have to stay one step ahead of the viruses that are mutating," explained Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, a USF assistant professor in infectious disease and internal medicine and an associate epidemiologist at TGH. 

They call it "surveillance." Researchers in a lab at TGH see what the virus is doing in our community. 

"Viruses and humans have coexisted for millions of years, it's almost always a struggle for survival. So in our struggle, the virus tries to come up with different variations so they can camouflage against the human cells, so it’s like a war zone pretty much," offered Lakshmi.

The technology used in the lab is called sequencing. Researchers look at the RNA of the virus and determine how it’s changing. 

"The sequencing is a way to detect through that camouflage and be able to find out what’s going on, how they're hiding from the immune system," Lakshmi continued.

The information from the lab is then shared around the world where new variants are popping up. 

"Some of them have been already associated to a more severe disease," warned Dr. Suzane Silbert, the scientific director of the TGH lab. 

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The research is also helping current patients. 

"We do have a young gentleman who did get his first dose of vaccine but unfortunately caught COVID after that and is very ill. And we are sequencing to make sure we get the right therapies that we can target," Lakshmi said. "That's why vaccination is so important because if he had had the second dose maybe he might not have had or he could have prevented what he's suffering through." 

It’s important to note the current vaccines still protect against the variants of the virus. Pfizer and Moderna are working to update their vaccines or possibly design a booster shot in case they’re needed against variants.    

In the meantime, Lakshmi says there’s one message all the doctors want to keep reminding everyone.

"We know masking works against all variants, so please keep wearing your mask until we get ahead of this with the vaccinations and herd immunity."