TAMPA, Fla. — More than 40 countries are banning travelers from the United Kingdom as scientists track a new strain of COVID-19 that could be 70% more contagious.
It comes as University of South Florida Epidemiology Professor Dr. Edwin Michael quarantines at his family’s home in the outskirts of London.
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Michael flew to London on Saturday just hours before the UK would announce new precautions to stop the concerning variant of COVID-19 from spreading.
"This virus is so tenacious. As soon as you drop your guard, it comes roaring back," Michael said, while speaking via Zoom from London. "Two weeks ago about 10% of cases were connected to this variant. Within two weeks, it’s hit 60%."
Michael said people in the UK are in a state of panic.
"People are frustrated and many are trying to get out of London, which is not the thing to do," he said.
Doctors say the mutation is not surprising. All viruses mutate over time and new variants are common.
The good news: The variant of COVID-19, referred to as VUI-202012/01, doesn't seem to be more deadly and scientists say vaccines should still cover this new strain of the virus. The bad news: If the variant of the virus is 70% more transmissible, it could spread very quickly.
"It is something to be concerned about because the virus is getting better at doing what it does, so if it gets better at doing what it does, we gotta get better at what we can do, too," Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a distinguished professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health added.
Local epidemiologists say news about the new variant makes social distancing and masks even more crucial this holiday season and beyond.
"I'm a little bit worried because it's more contagious, so more people will get infected which then show up for health care and we're pretty close to the limits now," explained Dr. John Sinnott, an epidemiologist at Tampa General Hospital and USF.
The COVID-19 variant has not yet been detected in the U.S. but has been linked to cases in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia. A similar variant was also detected in South Africa.
"It's not time to sound the alarms. You continue to do what you can control," Dr. Matthew Weissenbach of Wolters Kluwer Health in Tampa added.
While the U.S. hasn't announced any additional travel bans to and from the UK, Michael is watching closely.
"It's going to affect me obviously getting back into the country. I just don't know how the U.S. is going to react," he added.
Local doctors also wonder if COVID-19 will mutate enough to require additional vaccinations with different strains of the virus, similar to how we get annual flu shots.
"We may see something similar to what we see with annual flu vaccinations where vaccinations will need to be addressed over time as the virus mutates," Weissenbach added, although he says those determinations are still unclear at this point.