Health·CBC Explains

What you need to know about the coronavirus variant in Canada

Health officials in several Canadian provinces have announced cases of the new coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom. Here is what Canadians should know about the new variant.

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Health officials in several provinces have announced cases of the new coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom.

The new variant spreads more easily and faster than the original version of the virus, according to a report from researchers at Imperial College London released on Dec. 31, but it is not believed to be more deadly. "We note that these estimates of transmission advantage apply to a period where high levels of social distancing were in place in England," the report stated.

Scientists say there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines currently being deployed — including those approved for use in Canada — will not protect against this variant.

Here is what Canadians should know about the new variant.

What makes this variant different?

This variant is not the first new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to emerge since the pandemic began. The main worry is that the variant seems to be more transmissible than the original. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code — a relatively high number of changes — and some of these could be affecting its ability to spread.

On Monday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new lockdown for England until at least mid-February to combat the variant. Earlier in the day, Britain ramped up its vaccination program by becoming the first nation to start using the shot developed by Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca.

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Where were the Canadian cases found?

The first Canadian cases were identified in a couple in southern Ontario on Dec. 26 and came as the province went into a lockdown. As of Monday, there have been six confirmed cases of the variant in Ontario.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, reiterated that people should only travel if necessary and that those who do must adhere to the 14-day quarantine upon return. All six of the confirmed cases either were from travel or from contact with someone who recently travelled outside Canada.

"COVID-19 does not know borders," Yaffe said on Monday.

British Columbia reported a case of the new variant on Dec. 27 involving a person who flew from Britain on Dec. 15. Alberta announced its first case of the new variant on Dec. 28, while Quebec announced its first case Dec. 29.

"While early data suggests that these new variants may be more transmissible, to date there is no evidence that they cause more severe disease or have any impact on antibody response or vaccine effectiveness," the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said in a statement on Dec. 26. The agency said more research is needed to confirm these findings.

How should Canadians approach this new variant?

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician and associate professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, told CBC News Network's Natalie Kalata on Dec. 26 that people should take the same precautions with this variant that they would for the original virus.

"It's important that everyone adheres to the public health rules now a hundred times better than they were before, given that it is more transmissible," Chagla said.

Those include physical distancing, wearing masks, practising good hand hygiene, avoiding going out when feeling unwell and seeking a COVID-19 test when appropriate, he said.

Canada currently has a ban on passenger flights arriving from Britain until Jan. 6. It also recently expanded enhanced screening and monitoring measures for travelers arriving from South Africa, which has also seen the emergence of a virus variant.

Beginning Jan. 7, air travellers entering Canada must receive a negative result on a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — the standard nose swab test for detecting active COVID-19 infections — within 72 hours of boarding a flight to Canada.

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Will COVID-19 vaccines be effective against the variant?

Several drugmakers expect their COVID-19 vaccines will be effective against the new fast-spreading variant of the virus, including those whose vaccines are currently approved for use in Canada.

Ugur Sahin, chief executive of Germany's BioNTech — which partnered with Pfizer to create a vaccine — said on Dec. 22 he expects its messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine to still work well.

"Scientifically it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant," Sahin said. He added that it will take another two weeks or so of study and data collection to get a definitive answer.

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Moderna said on Dec. 23 it expects the immunity induced by its COVID-19 vaccine would be protective against the variants reported in the U.K. The U.S.-based company said it plans to run tests to confirm its mRNA vaccine's effectiveness against any strain.

"We have already tested sera from animals and humans vaccinated with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine against a number of previous variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that have emerged since the first outbreak of the pandemic and found our vaccine to remain equally effective," the company said in a statement.

In the event that the variant presents vaccine developers with an unexpected challenge, an advantage of mRNA is that scientists can quickly re-engineer genetic material in the shot to match that of the mutated protein, whereas modifying traditional vaccines would require extra steps.

"In principle, the beauty of the mRNA technology is we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation," Sahin said. "We could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks. Of course, this is not only a technical question. We have to deal with how regulators... would see that."

Canada began rolling out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December and recently started distributing Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine across the country.

But on Monday, scientists in the U.K. expressed concern that COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out in Britain may not be able to protect against a new variant of the coronavirus that emerged in South Africa.

Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said that while the two variants that emerged in the U.K. and South Africa had some new features in common, the one found in South Africa "has a number additional mutations … which are concerning."

He said these included more extensive alterations to a key part of the virus known as the spike protein — which the virus uses to infect human cells — and "may make the virus less susceptible to the immune response triggered by the vaccines."

Public Health England said there was currently no evidence to suggest COVID-19 vaccines would not protect against the mutated virus variants. Britain's Health Ministry did not immediately respond to requests from Reuters for comment.

With files from Reuters, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press