Univ. of Miami finds New York and Brazil COVID-19 variants in South Florida

Random sample of COVID-19 positive tests also shows 25% with UK variant

University of Miami researchers are finding more variants in South Florida, and they say a random sample of positive COVID-19 results showed 25% infected with the more infectious U.K. strain.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Researchers at the University of Miami are uncovering several more COVID-19 variant strains right here in South Florida, including three cases of two different Brazil variants and now a case of the so-called New York variant.

Dr. David Andrews of UM’s Miller School of Medicine calls it “really eye-opening.”

“We’re discovering variants of many different varieties,” he adds. “From many different locations, from an array of countries and array of sources.”

Andrews, an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, says the researchers were “very surprised in our first couple hundred sequencing results we turned up three variants originating from Brazil.”

The mutation from the United Kingdom is so far the most prevalent variant strain circulating throughout Florida — and believed to be more easily spread. In their latest statistics posted Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had verified 500 cases of that U.K. variant in Florida, most of any state in the country.

Furthermore, of a random sampling of COVID-19 positive results, the University of Miami researchers found that 25% had the U.K. variant.

But the concern with the newer New York variant, much like the Brazilian strain, is its suspected ability to bypass immunity, including from a vaccine.

“We entered into this not expecting to find any particular variant, and we found a case of the New York variant, and yes the concern for the New York variant is an immune escape mechanism as well,” Andrews says.

So, what about the millions statewide already vaccinated? While vaccines have shown to be effective against the U.K. variant, Andrews says they should be at least partially effective at protecting against other mutations.

“Both Pfizer and Moderna are starting clinical trials with slight variations of the vaccine to be able to address those structural differences in the spike protein,” he says.

The CDC’s latest data on Thursday showed only one verified case of the Brazilian variant, which Local 10 News previously reported was located in Miami-Dade County.

The new variants discovered at the University of Miami add to that.

UM says it is one of “a handful” of academic medical centers across the U.S. testing COVID-19 samples for variants and sequencing them.

“Because of our geographic location, it’s very important for us to develop these capabilities,” said Dr. Stephen D. Nimer, director of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, who developed the school’s COVID-19 testing program. “If we are able to find other variants, we can then determine whether they are covered by our vaccines and whether they actually cause more severe disease, and all of this information is helpful for the world to know.”

The Florida Department of Health has said that the state’s higher numbers of confirmed variants are in part a result of greater efforts to sequence and look for those other strains than other states.

For more information on the University of Miami research, click here.

About the Authors:

Amy Viteri is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who joined Local 10 News in September 2015. She's currently an investigative reporter and enjoys uncovering issues facing South Florida communities. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, she's happy to be back in South Florida, where she earned a masters degree at the University of Miami.