The discovery of a new, possibly more contagious variant of COVID-19 in Canada calls for more stringent lockdowns, curbs to international travel and a need to vaccinate people faster, experts say.
On Saturday, the country’s largest province of Ontario reported the first two cases of the coronavirus strain that was first identified in the United Kingdom and has since spread to Australia, Japan and several European countries.
Provincial officials said the cases involved a couple from Durham Region with no known travel history, exposure, or high-risk contacts. Both are now in self-isolation.
“Not heeding the advice of some experts to seriously curtail international travel is now demonstrably a mistake,” Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News.
“Nationally, we would do well to speed up vaccination and curtail international travel,” he said.
What we know about the new strain of coronavirus
Canada suspended flights from the U.K. on Dec. 20 for 72 hours due to concerns over the new variant and has since extended the suspension until Jan. 6, 2021.
Travellers are now asked “additional health screening questions” to see if they had visited a country that has reported the variant, according to Health Canada.
All travellers arriving in Canada are required to quarantine for 14 days.
What is the new variant?
Mutations, which are small changes in the genetic material of the virus, are common during outbreaks.
The U.K. variant was first announced by the British government on Dec. 14.
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The strain, referred to by some experts as the B.1.1.7 lineage, is not the first new variant of COVID-19, but it has rapidly become the dominant strain in cases of COVID-19 in many parts of U.K. To date, there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness.
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But the variant is said to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the U.K and its cases has been found in several European countries, including France, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
In recent weeks, at least two other variants have also been identified in South Africa and Nigeria.
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Dr. Zain Chagla, medical director of infection control with St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said the new variants are similar to the current strain by “over 99 per cent” and there may also be other variants emerging in different countries that have not been detected due a lack of aggressive sequencing.
In a statement on Saturday, Health Canada said Canadian and global medical communities are actively evaluating the mutations.
“As the monitoring continues, it is expected that other cases of this variant and other variants of concern may be found in Canada,” the agency said.
Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said the SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating fairly slowly and the frequency of new strains arising is “not excessive” at the moment
“It’s just that the sheer number of infected humans is so large that we are seeing mutations developing simply from the extraordinary frequency of viral replication globally,” he told Global News.
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Ontario went into a province-wide lockdown earlier on Saturday, coinciding with Boxing Day, in an effort to curb the spread of the rising number of cases and hospitalizations.
Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the province’s associate chief medical officer of health, said the new variant “further reinforces the need for Ontarians to stay home as much as possible.”
In light of recent developments, experts are urging people across the country not to panic and to continue adhering to public health measures.
“We’re in fairly strict restrictions and the same ones apply to preventing the B.1.1.7 variant — masking when indoors, testing with any symptoms, distancing, and staying home as much as possible,” Chagla said.
What does this mean for the vaccines?
Canada has so far approved two coronavirus vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
The country began its nationwide vaccine rollout earlier this month, with up to 249,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine and 168,000 from Moderna expected by the end of the year.
Experts and health officials say there is no evidence to suggest that the vaccines will not be effective against the new variants.
“So far, early preliminary studies, not yet published, show that immunity induced by the current vaccine produces neutralizing antibodies that are effective against variants with the N501Y mutation,” Evans said.
“We will need further studies to corroborate these findings along with other mutations that have been documented.”
Chagla agreed. “Most indications are that the vaccines are spared,” he said.
“Both Pfizer and Moderna will confirm this in the coming weeks.”
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