EXPLAINED: What makes the variant COVID-19 strains more contagious?

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida leads the nation in confirmed COVID-19 cases caused by variant strains of the virus.

Of the 186 cases recorded in Florida by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six are in Seminole County, and the first in Orange County was confirmed Thursday.

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The variant has doctors concerned because it’s more contagious than the standard strain, but why is that?

Dr. Nicole Iovine, a UF Health Epidemiologist, says the virus is mutating, and getting better at it over time.

“UK, South Africa, Brazil...All these seem to be associated with increased transmissibility,” Dr. Iovine says.

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To be precise, scientists say the UK variant is about 50% more contagious.

Dr. Iovine says she set out to find out why.

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“The changes were in the spike protein,” Dr. Iovine explains. “It’s those knobs that are poking out all over...that’s where the mutations are happening that will make the virus bind better to our cells.”

Dr. Iovine says that means the virus will be able to infect more cells, making it more transmissible.

Additional studies have shown, people infected with the UK variant are more likely to have more of the virus inside them, which means more of the virus gets into the air whenever they talk, cough, or sneeze.

As for whether a person is more likely to die from the variant, Dr. Iovine says that’s still being studied.

She says when the variants first emerged, it appeared there was no noticeable difference in the severity of the virus.

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However, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said, evidence has emerged suggesting the variant first discovered there “may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.”

As for the vaccines, doctors say they do appear to be effective against the variants.