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Citrus County is among the near half of Florida counties that now report at least one person infected with the more contagious United Kingdom mutated COVID-19 strain.  

But thus far, the current vaccine for the original coronavirus first spotted in Citrus County a year ago, is effective against this new variant of the virus.

The Florida Department of Health on Friday, Feb. 19, disclosed the new information about which counties have the U.K variant. The mutated virus has also been spreading across the United States.

As of Thursday, Feb. 18, Broward County has the most cases, 115, followed by Miami-Dade County, with 68 cases of the U.K. strain.

Citrus County has one case of the U.K. strain. That was confirmed for the Chronicle by Ernesto “Tito” Rubio, the administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Citrus County.

While the U.K. mutation of the virus is more contagious, and as a result could result more deaths, Rubio said that the same precautions many already take for the original strain will protect us from the new form of the virus.

“While we suspect this variant to be more contagious, if you take the precautions of wearing your mask, washing your hands, keeping your distance, you should protect yourself,” Rubio said.

Current studies show that the vaccine being distributed is effective against the new strain, he added.

“Yes, as far as I know ... this (variant) is nothing different,” he said.

Studies estimate that the new strain is between 30% - 70%  more infectious, but not more deadly than the original Wuhan strain.

Meanwhile, scientists are developing a variety of second-generation coronavirus vaccines with the goal of expanding protection against mutations of the virus.

One version would offer immunity against many different virus variants. Other potential vaccines would target how the virus is transmitted between people.

There are currently three predominate variants of the virus.

Virus experts say that viruses mutate all the time and there are often many variants of a virus. But a variant emerges when it is able to infect many more people and sometimes becomes the predominate variant. The U.K. variant is now the dominant strain in England.

Scientists have identified at least 17 mutations on the new U.K. variant. Of those mutations, eight occur in the part of the virus called the spike protein, which binds to human cells during the initial stages of infection.

The new variant also lacks a genetic portion, which helps it evade detection by the human immune system.

Researchers say that the changes suggest that the virus is adapting to better infect humans and infect others during a sneeze or cough.

But the human immune system is designed to work against mutating viruses, researchers said, and can identifying viruses despite their changes.

Rubio said the U.K. variant in Citrus County will not likely be the sole account of the virus here.

“We anticipate seeing more,” he said.

But the variants do not surprise Rubio.

“This (virus) has been mutating since day one,” he said.

Meanwhile, scientists and health care officials are keeping a wary eye on one mutated strain commonly known as the South African virus.

The concern is that its mutations could make it difficult for the body to fight the virus despite having been given a vaccine. But the hope is that the current vaccines will help enough to limit the degree of infection of the mutant strain long enough for researchers to develop new, more targeted vaccines.

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.