JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s a science lesson we all learned in high school. Viruses like COVID-19 mutate over time.
That’s why there is a different flu vaccine every year.
Most medical experts believe COVID-19 has mutated and will continue to. But hearing it announced Sunday at a news conference for Gov. Ron DeSantis that the strain now circulating in Florida is less aggressive caught people who study these things by surprise.
“It is a theory but one that’s a little unfounded,” said UF Health Jacksonville Infectious Disease Director Chad Neilsen.
Speaking at a Pensacola news conference, DeSantis called on Dr. Jason Foland, from Studer Family Children’s Hospital, to explain.
“The less aggressive virus is spreading throughout the community‚” Foland said. “People who, in the beginning, were getting sick and dying weren’t spreading the virus. And on top of that, the elderly populations were isolating themselves, so we’re seeing maybe a less virulent, or a less strong spread throughout the community in a population that doesn’t have a lot of symptoms.”
The doctors appearing at DeSantis’s news conference said there is no clinical data at this point to back up their theory that this is a less aggressive strain of the virus. But Foland said there is a lot of belief among members of the medical community that is the case.
However, Dr. Neilsen offered his own insight as to why the mortality rate may be down even though Florida has seen some of its highest daily number of cases in the last week.
“It’s probably because it’s shifting into a healthier population,” Neilsen said. “But it still is causing people to come to the hospital because they have flu-like symptoms and the don’t want to feel like that.”
Dr. Pauline Rolle, medical director of the Duval County Health Department said it’s too early to tell if this is a less aggressive strain.
“So there’s some reports globally out of Italy that there’s a less aggressive strain circulating, but certainly were still telling people to be careful and not be lax about this,” Rolle said.
A News4Jax scan of recent scientific literature found limited speculation about a less aggressive strain of COVID-19. On the contrary, there were reports of a mutated strain of the virus that makes it more infectious.
The Scripps Research Institute, located in Jupiter, Florida, published a paper online earlier this month that its study of a mutation was going through a standard peer-review process.
“Our study shows that the mutant virus infects cells much more efficiently in a cell-culture system because the mutation stabilizes the spike protein and increases the number of spike proteins on the virus,” Hyeryun Choe, the paper’s senior author, told Newsweek.
“I think it’s a little dangerous at this point to be suggesting that mortality is being driven down because of a less virulent strain when the evidence just isn’t there to support that,” Neilsen said.
On the Trust Index, we are going to say Proceed with Caution. At this point, there is no data to back up the claim that the COVID-19 strain spreading rapidly in Florida is less aggressive. But there’s no evidence to disprove it as researchers are still trying to understand the virus.
One thing all medical professionals agree on: do not let your guard down when it comes to the virus.