Cross Country Checkup

How concerned should Canadians be about the U.K. strain of COVID-19?

As vaccines continue to roll out across Canada, questions are being raised about a new coronavirus variant first reported in the U.K. that’s believed to spread faster than the original version of the virus. Professor Ravi Gupta gives us the details of the virus, and Dr. Zain Chagla explains if Canadians should be worried.

Variant believed to spread faster than the original version of the virus

As vaccines continue to roll out across Canada, questions are being raised about a new coronavirus variant first reported in the U.K. that’s believed to spread faster than the original version of the virus. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

For the fifth day in a row, the United Kingdom recorded over 50,000 new daily COVID-19 cases.

The U.K. recorded 57,725 new cases of the virus today, official data showed. The number is a U.K. record, eclipsing the 55,892 new cases the region recorded on Thursday. 

According to Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, the rise in U.K. COVID cases could be due to a variant of the virus that was discovered in the U.K. in September.

"This [variant] has a lot of mutations, and it seems to be spreading at a higher rate from one person to another in the U.K., and therefore, a total proportion of new infections with a new variant is very, very high" he said.

A more transmissible mutation

Gupta has studied the U.K. strain of the coronavirus and contributed to a case study about it. He says this specific variant may have acquired many of its mutations within one person "because it's got the signatures of evolving at quite a high rate." 

"That is a characteristic that we observed in our case study that we've published and a number of other studies that are individual patients that have virus for long periods of time," he said. "A number of studies have now shown that the virus is able to make quite dramatic changes to itself in these individuals."

Professor Ravi Gupta says the rise in U.K. COVID cases could be due to a variant of the virus that was discovered in the U.K. in September. (Jane Stockdale)

In Gupta's case, after his team measured these changes, he says there was evidence that these mutations changed the behaviour of the viruses.

"One of the mutations made the virus less sensitive to the antibodies given to the patient, and one of the mutations gave it a higher replication rate, as I've suggested, for this new variant," he said.

He says that after testing the amount of virus in people's noses and throats, it also appears that the variant is more transmissible than the original version of the virus.

"It is a bit more virus being produced than you would expect with the normal sort of strains that are circulating," he said. "That's consistent with the virus potentially having a higher replication rate, which should explain why it transmits more, because it makes more copies of itself more often."

"We've seen vulnerable settings get the virus, and so having a more transmissible virus introduced into these areas creates a huge amount of damage. It creates more hospitalizations, it creates more death."​​​​​​- Dr. Zain Chagla

But Gupta's main worry isn't that the virus is mutating. He's also worried about how it's mutating.

"What concerns me is that the mutations that we're observing are in parts of the virus, like spike protein, that our antibodies and immune systems target to destroy the viruses," he said. "It's suggestive that the virus is starting to learn how to deal with some of the antibodies that we produce."

'A big, big worry'

The emergence of the coronavirus variant in the U.K. has prompted other countries to restrict travel to and from the region, but that hasn't prevented the variant from spreading outside of the country's borders. Earlier this week, a man in Colorado was confirmed to have the variant. And in Canada, variants of the virus have been detected in OntarioB.C., Alberta and Quebec.

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases doctor and associate professor at McMaster University, says Canadians shouldn't be surprised by the emergence of a coronavirus variant. 

"Viruses mutate like every other form of life," he said. "The sole purpose of a virus is to infect more individuals — not necessarily kill more individuals but infect more individuals over time."

But as the variant spreads into other regions, including Canada, Chagla says the concern is on how transmissible it becomes. He says even a less fatal but more transmissible variant of the virus is still a "big, big worry."

"We've seen vulnerable settings get the virus, and so having a more transmissible virus introduced into these areas creates a huge amount of damage. It creates more hospitalizations, it creates more death," he said. 

Vaccines and lockdowns

With the variant now within Canadian borders, Chagla says the best way to combat the virus — both its mutation and its original form — is by getting vaccinated. 

Dr. Zain Chagla says the best way to combat the COVID-19 virus and its mutations is by getting vaccinated.  (@zchagla/Twitter)

"Reducing the pool of an effective circulating virus, reducing the number of hosts the virus can infect is actually going to have direct effects on the mutation rate of these viruses," he said.  

Chagla believes Canadians should look to the U.K. and how they've responded to the variant's emergence for guidance.

"They've doubled down on trying to immunize higher populations because they understand that some of the traditional measures aren't necessarily as effective now, and really, this is the last solution left," he said.

Gupta echoes Chagla's statement.

"We can't put too much damage on the economy because we won't recover, and on the other hand, we've got to stop this thing happening," he said.

"I think the new variant has given us a renewed reason or excuse to actually do big-time lockdowns because this is something that we do need to stop."


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Ashley Fraser and Steven Howard.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now