USF tracking virus mutation strains detected in Bay Area

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Florida at the top for cases of COVID-19 strain from the United Kingdom, so scientists with the University of South Florida are seeing just how widespread the virus mutations are in Tampa Bay.

Epidemiologists with USF Health will analyze nasal swabs from the University of South Florida’s campus along with samples from Tampa General Hospital, using samples collected of the spring 2020 virus as a guide.

"By doing the sequencing, we can really keep an eye on how the virus is evolving," said Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a professor of epidemiology at USF and lead researcher on the study.

He said the new study launched two weeks ago to see how many variants are in Tampa Bay.

"The UK variant is really concerning because it’s about 40% more infectious," said Unnasch.

PREVIOUS: Scientists identify US strain of COVID-19 virus mutation

Along with the UK variant, scientists will look at the Brazil and South Africa variants along with any others that pop up.

Researchers want to see how fast those strains are spreading. They are focusing on USF’s campus, and they will compare positive swabs from athletes and other students over the course of this semester to samples of the 2020 virus from TGH.

"We detected a couple of the UK variants here on the data that we just got recently. Overall prevalence is around 5%, and they were both samples collected the third week in January, which is exactly the prevalence of the variant in Hillsborough County at that time," said Unnasch.

Scientists said what they find on campus is a snapshot of what’s happening in the community, so the study will help inform Hillsborough County leaders. Dr. Unnasch said they plan to alert Hillsborough County leaders of any changes.

"If we start to see some real upticks in this associated with a real uptick in transmission, we may make some suggestions for them," said Unnasch.

MORE: DeSantis blasts idea of travel restrictions as COVID-19 variant surges in Florida

USF researchers said the information goes into a county database, and vaccine makers monitor that to see how the virus tries to get around the shot. So, the study will also help doses in the future.

"For example, this South African one that has partial escape to the vaccinations, Astra Zeneca and Moderna are already working on modifying their vaccines to attack that one," said Unnasch.

Dr. Unnasch said there is no time limit on the study, so they will keep collecting samples to see what’s spreading in the community over the coming months.