The total number of Covid infections and deaths in Florida has plummeted despite its high number of Kent variant cases, prompting quiet optimism from infection experts in the US.
Florida now leads the United States in confirmed cases of the Kent variant, which accounts for an estimated half of all new cases there, but has seen a staggering 75 per cent drop in total cases since early January.
This is despite dire warnings from UK officials here that the Kent variant is up to 70 per cent more contagious than prior strands, and new research suggesting it is twice as deadly, sparking fears that a variant surge could outpace vaccine rollouts.
The latest figures have eased those concerns as experts now predict the US state could avoid a fourth wave of the virus and could indicate the UK's outlook may also be better than previously predicted.
Florida leads the US in confirmed cases of the Kent variant with 690, while most other states have less than 100 cases of the strain. The 690 figure represents 0.035 per cent of the total 1,967,865 cases of coronavirus in Florida.
Concern about variants is still high in the UK and the Department of Health this week began surge testing of the public in Wandsworth, south London, after officials discovered the South African strain of the virus.
No10's top scientific advisers spooked the nation in January when they warned the variant was up to 30 per cent deadlier than older versions.
College students have descended on Florida for spring break with Fort Lauderdale beaches packed with maskless revellers. Florida is the B117 capital of the US but has declining cases
Florida leads US in variant cases, and Kent variant accounts for half of all new cases there
The Kent variant dates back to September 2020, and was responsible for most of the second wave in the UK, while older variants from Wuhan and Spain caused the first wave.
So far in the UK, there have been more than 115,558 cases of the Kent variant since it first emerged in September.
A study found that the Kent variant led to 227 deaths in a sample of 54,906 UK patients – compared to 141 among the same number of similar patients who had the previous strains.
Because of this increased risk of death and the fact that the variant infects people faster, those who might have been considered relatively low risk before were at higher risk now.
This chimes with official Government guidance, which saw an extra 1.7million people added to the shielding list and advised to stay at home during the vaccine rollout.
But the situation in Florida means concerns the Kent strain could fuel a deadly third wave in the UK may not yet be warranted.
Florida leads the US with 690 confirmed cases of the B117 variant - but surveillance testing estimates that the true number of variant cases there is much higher.
Earlier this week, researchers estimated that B117 had reached more than half of all new cases in Florida, after accounting for just 4 per cent of cases a month ago.
But meanwhile Florida's case count has plunged, despite doomsday predictions about the state's lax restrictions on businesses, and large gatherings for Super Bowl LV in Tampa in early February.
What do we know about the Kent variant?
Where did it come from? The variant was first found in Kent and can be traced back to September 2020. Scientists noticed that it was spreading in November and it was revealed to the public in December.
What makes it new? The variant has a series of mutations that change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The main one is known as N501Y. This appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread.
How did that happen? Viruses, particularly ones spreading so fast and in such huge numbers, mutate all the time. To reproduce they basically force living cells to copy and paste the viral genetic code, and this can contain errors that lead to slightly different versions of the virus. Often these mutations make no difference but, if they make the virus stronger, they can stick around for further generations and become the norm.
What can we do about it? Nothing much. People who catch the virus won't know which type they have, and it will still cause the same symptoms and illness. Officials can try to contain it by locking down the areas where it is most prevalent, but if it is stronger than other versions of the virus it will eventually spread everywhere and become dominant as long as people continue to travel.
Will our vaccines still work? Yes, it's very likely they will. Scientists on SAGE are fairly sure the mutations the Kent variant carries do not significantly affect how well the immune system can handle it. People who have a vaccine modelled on an older version of the virus, or who have been infected with Covid-19 before, are likely to be immune to it. This is because the main mutations are only on one part of the spike protein, whereas the immune system is able to target various other parts of the virus.
These concerns came as the state entered a third wave of infections which began gathering steam in November last year
Florida's latest COVID surge peaked on January 8 at 84 daily new cases per 100,000 population, but cases have steadily dropped and stood at 22 per 100,000 on Thursday.
Hospitalizations have also declined by half over the same period, as has Florida's test positivity rate, which is now at 4.88 percent. Deaths have also declined sharply.
'I think we just keep watching the data. If cases continue to drop in Florida despite circulating variants, maybe the variant won't be as bad as was predicted,' Suzanne Judd, a PhD epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health, told DailyMail.com.
'This is why we have to avoid speculating on variants until we have the data,' she added.
'The good news from Florida is an encouraging sign for the rest of us. It doesn't mean America is out of the woods. But it does suggest we could emerge sooner than we thought,' wrote Andrew Romano for Yahoo News.
The more infectious variant, which swept across the UK at the end of last year before spreading across the world, is between 30 percent and 100 percent more deadly, a new study found.
Epidemiologists from the Universities of Exeter and Bristol said the data suggests the variant is associated with a significantly higher mortality rate among adults compared with previously circulating strains.
Robert Challen, from the University of Exeter, lead author of the study, said: 'In the community, death from Covid-19 is still a rare event, but the B117 variant raises the risk.
'Coupled with its ability to spread rapidly, this makes B117 a threat that should be taken seriously.'
Mutations of the virus have raised concerns about whether vaccines would be effective against the new strains, including the now-dominant Kent strain.
But research suggests the Pfizer jab is just as effective against the Kent variant of coronavirus as it was against the original pandemic strain, while other data indicates the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab has a similar efficacy against the variant.
Dr Simon Clarke, an expert in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said: 'It is now well established that the Kent variant is more transmissible; it has come to dominate in the UK and it is increasing in prevalence in other parts of the developed world.
'This increased lethality, in addition to the increased transmissibility, means that this version of the virus presents a substantial challenge to healthcare systems and policy makers.
'It also makes it even more important people get vaccinated when called.'
Earlier this week, the UK's chief medical officer warned a deadly third wave of coronavirus is inevitable as he defended England's ultra-cautious roadmap out of lockdown.
Professor Chris Witty argued 'all the modelling' suggests Covid infections will spike at some point after restrictions are eased, despite uptake of the vaccines being high.
He claimed it was 'perfectly realistic' that tens of thousands more Brits could be killed by Covid because the virus 'will find' people who either have not been vaccinated, or for whom the jab has not worked.
He pointed out that even flu claims up to 20,000 lives during a bad year.
But Professor Whitty made clear that because of the highly effective vaccines now in the arms of the most vulnerable, the scale of the next wave of the epidemic will be 'nothing like what we've seen over the course of this winter'.
More than 80,000 people have died since the second wave started gathering steam in September.
Professor Whitty maintained that slower was safer when it came to easing the curbs because it gives more time for the vaccine programme to get even wider coverage, telling MPs he would 'strongly advise' they stick to the cautious plan.
Batting away calls for lockdown to be loosened sooner, he warned: 'If you open up too fast, a lot more people die - a lot more people die... I think it's very easy to forget quite how quickly things can turn bad if you don't keep a very, very close eye on it.'
He warned against Number 10 unlocking too quickly and repeating earlier mistakes, adding: 'If you look at the history of this all around the world... It’s full of leaders who wished they had acted quicker and then been more careful as they take things off.'