Public health officials have expressed concern about a new strain of COVID-19 after cases of the UK variant were identified in Ontario.
New modeling projections suggest this new variant, called B117, could drop the virus’s doubling time significantly, meaning that daily case counts could double every 10 days by March.
There’s evidence that this new strain is about 56 per cent more transmissible, according to co-chair of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, which could lead to higher case counts, increased ICU occupancy, and higher mortality rates should community transmission occur.
The first known cases of the UK variant in Ontario were in a man and a woman who initially withheld information about being in close contact with a recent traveller from the UK.
The couple is now facing charges.
At least four new COVID-19 variants have been identified around the world. These include the UK variant B117 and a variant that originated in South Africa.
“One also emerged recently in Nigeria, and Japan is reporting as of Sunday that they detected a new variant among travelers returning from Brazil,” said Justeen Mansourian, Public Health Nurse on the Communicable Disease Team at Public Health Sudbury & Districts.
Mansourian told The Sudbury Star that not much is known about the new variants at this time, but the Public Health Agency of Canada is closely monitoring the situation.
“What we know so far is that there is evidence that these variants increase the transmissibility of COVID-19. An individual who catches a new strain is more infectious and contagious, but the severity of the actual disease or the course of the illness is not more severe,” she said.
“Early data is not showing that the new strain has any impact on any type of antibody response, and when I say that I am talking about the vaccine. You need a lot of mutations within a virus, within the genetic sequencing, for it to actually affect the vaccine itself. We’re not there yet.”
What people need to appreciate about any virus, she added, is that variants or mutations are quite normal. As an example, she cited the influenza virus.
“The flu virus mutates often, and sometimes it mutates within the same season. There are also several thousands of variants of the influenza virus. There are so many mutations that it actually changes the behaviour of the virus,” she said.
“That’s why sometimes you hear that a vaccine was not effective during a particular year.”
With only a handful of mutations identified so far, it is unlikely that the COVID-19 vaccine will become less effective.
The real concern at this point is that increased transmissibility will drive COVID-19 rates up, putting pressure on an already strained health-care system and potentially increasing mortality rates.
Growth in COVID-19 cases in the province is over seven per cent on the worst days. If this trend continues, Ontario could eventually see more than 40,000 cases per day.
Cases have soared in Public Health Sudbury & District’s service area in the new year, and outbreaks have been declared at Amberwood Suites, Extendicare and the Elizabeth Centre, as well as Ecole St. Denis.
The provincial government has imposed a stay-at-home order to try to get things under control.
The governing body monitoring the COVID-19 variant situation is the Public Health Agency of Canada. Samples are sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory, located in Winnipeg, for genetic sequencing.
“There are sentinel sites across all labs in Canada, and samples are sent pretty much at random. There’s a very, very large surveillance program in Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia right now,” said Mansourian.
“The majority of any sequencing that’s established comes out of those three provinces, but we do know that the first two variants were identified in Ontario.”
According to Ontario public health officials, 500 to 600 samples are being tested each week. Experts are working on compiling data from across the country to identify variants “as soon as possible and understand what the implications are.”
“In the grand scheme of things, what we really need to know from a public health perspective is that nothing changes,” said Mansourian.
“We just need to be more hyper-vigilant about following all public health protocols and provincial regulations to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star