(WSVN) - As COVID-19 cases surge, alarming new research done right here in South Florida is shedding light on why the coronavirus may be spreading so fast. Scientists have discovered the virus has mutated in a way that makes it even more infectious. 7’s Kevin Ozebek investigates.

My photographer and I were the last journalists allowed inside the Scripps Research labs in Jupiter before they closed to visitors in March.

Back then we could at least elbow bump with their leading virus experts as they raced to develop a vaccine.

Today, as we meet again, we can’t get any closer than six feet. Things have changed for us … and COVID-19.

Kevin Ozebek: “How easy does this virus spread now?”

Dr. Michael Farzan, Scripps Research: “Well, we started with a virus that was very good at transmitting from individual to individual. Now we have a virus that has gotten even better at transmitting from individual to individual.”

Dr. Michael Farzan and his wife, Hyeryun Choe, have been working extremely long hours fighting this pandemic.

Dr. Hyeryun Choe, Scripps Research: “I work like until midnight, 1 a.m.”

During her relentless quest to learn more about COVID-19, Dr. Choe has made a startling discovery. Her research revealed the virus has mutated in a way that makes it up to 10 times more infectious when in a laboratory setting.

This could help explain why New York and Italy had much more severe outbreaks than the original epicenter in Wuhan, China.

Dr. Michael Farzan: “This new coronavirus is brand-new to humans, so it’s just figuring out how best to move from person to person right now in real time.”

The mutation has made protein spikes on COVID-19 more dense and stable, which makes it easier for the virus to infect human cells.

Drs. Choe and Farzan said they’re nearly certain the mutation makes the virus spread more easily from human to human.

Dr. Hyeryun Choe: “Probably by now a majority, a big majority of the virus in Florida is the mutated form.”

But the mutation is probably not the only reason we’re seeing a surge of cases here in South Florida and across the state. Many epidemiologists fear Florida relaxed rules too early.

Kevin Ozebek: “Is Florida the new COVID-19 hotspot?”

Dr. Ali Mokdad, University of Washington: “Unfortunately, yes, Florida is one of them.”

Dr. Ali Mokdad is the infectious disease expert behind a COVID-19 model that predicts deaths from the virus will top 18,000 in Florida by the beginning of October.

Dr. Ali Mokdad: “In everything we do as scientists, we wish all the time that we don’t make a mistake. In this case, I wish my models do not come true.”

The doctor stresses there is a way to make the models not come true.

Dr. Ali Mokdad: “It’s very important to stress that we can change this, that we can do our part in wearing a mask.”

Dr. Mokdad says wearing a mask, keeping your nose and mouth covered, combined with social distancing really does flatten the curve.

Dr. Farzan says he has developed a potential vaccine. Researchers are currently testing it on a macaque monkey.

Farzan believes multiple vaccines will be approved sooner rather than later.


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