With public health officials in the United Kingdom announcing a new variant of COVID-19 was “out of control”, the Canadian government acted swiftly to close the border to incoming flights from the U.K. The new strain, named B.1.1.7, is suggested to be 70 per cent more transmissible than the current strain, D614G, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"This afternoon, I convened a meeting with the Incident Response Group. We focused on the new variant of COVID-19 identified in the UK, and we have decided to implement new border restrictions in order to keep you - and people right across the country - safe," wrote Trudeau on Twitter.
Later, Canada made the decision to extend the UK flight ban until January 6, 2021.
While there is no evidence to suggest this variant is more deadly or causes a higher risk of severe illnesses, panic and concern have rapidly spread across the world. The original COVID-19 virus that was first clocked in Wuhan, China is not the one that is ravaging most of the world. That particular strain, best known as D614G was originally found in Europe in April, and then moved across the world.
“It’s certainly concerning, but eye-opening the number of mutations we’ve seen in this one variant, it’s not something anybody expected,” said Dr. Jason Kindrachuk an Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.
The mutations that have occurred within the virus have shown an ability to infect cells, and the new variant is rapidly overtaking the current virus, especially in the U.K, but there is still little known. As researchers such as Kindrachuk and others begin to study the data, he admits that there is little that is known by the global community, but there was an expectation that they would come across different variants.
“This is part-in-parcel what viruses do, we are conscious that things like this might happen,” said Kindrachuk.
The latest variant was clocked by the U.K. genomic surveillance, which was designed to better understand the spread of different variants that could have emerged during the course of the pandemic. Both Canada and the U.S. have similar surveillance programs, but Kindrachuk notes they may not be as robust as the current U.K. setup and showcases why investment in Public Health is so important.
“We have to characterize what this means before slipping into the pandemonium, we don’t have all the data, but this shows why sequence surveillance is so important,” said Kindrachuk.
The surveillance aspect is key, as the Public Agency of Health Canada said on Monday the new variant may already be in Canada as they’re awaiting results from samples. The investment in ensuring we have a solid and formidable surveillance program becomes more necessary as we move through the pandemic.
“We will likely see more variants, this is not going to be the only one, we still have a long haul to get through this pandemic,” said Kindrachuk.
Will the current vaccine cover the new COVID-19 variant?
While there is an understandable fear associated with what challenges a new variant could present, Kindrachuk notes that both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have vaccine platforms that can be tweaked fairly easily to address the changes that are found with the U.K. variant.
“I sleep a little better knowing that the vaccine platforms that have been utilized for COVID-19, that they’ve used very broad technology so that we get good coverage on the virus,” he said.
A vaccine platform is an infrastructure that can be readily changed to address emerging infectious disease vaccines without taking on the burden of significant additional finances, or much tweaking to achieve mass production or regulatory approval.
“With the two vaccines, the platforms are readily adaptable, so when you see things where there is a new variant that is a cause for concern or reduces efficacy of the vaccine, now you have the ability to adapt and scale up in a short amount of time,” said Kindrachuk.
While the variant emerging out of the U.K. may be new on the surface, the practices to ensure it doesn’t spread, even if it’s more transmissible, remain the same, according to Kindrachuk.
“Masking, social distancing, all those infection control preventions that we’ve been talking about for the better part of the year, they still apply. Our best way to counteract the virus is by doing these things the right way,” he said.
In ten months, two vaccine candidates have been found to have over 90 per cent efficacy and are already being distributed, and that is a major win, according to Kindrachuk. While new variants and infectious diseases may and will always be concerning, he admits that in this scenario, the global camaraderie to solve the pandemic is a sign for optimism.
“Doing this with global effort, with sharing of global data on a moment-by-moment basis makes me feel better about where we’ll end up,” said Kindrachuk.
“We have to appreciate the smartest people in the world who are working on this.”