London

Highly infectious virus variant already circulating in London, Ont., top doc warns

Health officials revealed Monday that the highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom has been spreading in the London, Ont., region since December.

Health officials are now re-testing samples to see if the variant was behind some outbreaks

Health officials revealed Monday that the highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom has been spreading in the London, Ont., region since December. (Robert Short/CBC)

The highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom has now been detected in London, Ont., and health officials are now looking to re-test samples to see if the variant might be behind several fast-spreading outbreaks in the community. 

The variant, which scientists have dubbed B117, was first identified in southeast England. British health officials have said it's not only more contagious than the main strain of the illness, but preliminary evidence suggests it could also be more deadly

On Monday, Dr. Chris Mackie, the region's medical officer of health, said two people were infected with the U.K. variant in London, Ont., but health officials only recently detected the strain after samples taken from both people were re-tested. 

"We have a case of transmission of U.K. variant in this community and a related death."

Mackie said the death was reported back in December during a daily case count by the health unit. Through contact tracing, one of the close contacts of the individual who died was also positive for the virus. That sample was retested and found to match the dominant strain currently circulating in the U.K.

"No other cases of U.K. variant have been detected in Middlesex and London," Mackie said. 

Variant might explain some rapid outbreaks in London, Ont.

Country Terrace nursing home in Komoka, Ont., is currently battling an outbreak that's killed 22 residents. Health officials are retesting samples taken from the home to see if a troubling new variant of the illness is behind the outbreak. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

How widely the variant has spread within the region and whether it's a factor in a number of recent institutional outbreaks in the community will not be clear for at least a week, according to Mackie, who said the health unit has ordered a number of samples retested. 

On that list are the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre, where hundreds of provincial inmates are living in cramped conditions, as well as two nursing homes, Middlesex Terrace in Delaware, Ont., and Country Terrace in Komoka, Ont., which together account for 34 resident deaths and dozens more who have been sickened by the virus. 

The spectre of a new highly contagious variant circulating in the community has arisen at a time when the London region has just started to see its most recent surge start to recede. 

On Monday, the region reported 27 new cases of the virus, its lowest tally in a month. According to Mackie, it's a sign that stay-at-home orders imposed by the province seem to be working. 

The province has said it intends to relax some of the restrictions on February 10, which risks giving the troubling new variant of the virus the room it needs to establish itself in the community. 

Could the variant start a spring surge? 

A man in a mask pumps gas in London, Ont., in December. (Colin Butler/CBC)

"It's very much open question, what will happen? If we relax restrictions, seeing that things are moving in the right direction, will that be just in time for the U.K. variant or other variants to hit very hard and to increase cases? It's very much uncertain right now," Mackie said. 

In Britain, the European country the hardest hit by the virus, this new strain is believed to be responsible for record case and hospital numbers over Christmas. 

The surge forced Prime Minister Boris Johnston to reimpose tough national restrictions he once decried to get the nation's spiralling infection rate under control. 

Mackie said Monday that while the British government did manage to get surging case numbers under control, it was a lot more difficult than if they had been dealing with the main strain of the virus. 

While no one is sure if the current Ontario restrictions are tough enough to prevent the variant from the U.K., or variants detected in Brazil and South Africa, from gaining a foothold in the province, Mackie said health officials will continue their push to inoculate the region's most vulnerable populations. 

"Hopefully what we have in place now will be sufficient and we can keep it up long enough to get enough vaccine in people's arms to end this wave," he said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Reporter

Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at colin.butler@cbc.ca.

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