Cross Country Checkup·Ask Me Anything

Your COVID-19 questions answered: Will Canada see more variants? Is the seasonal flu spreading?

University of British Columbia evolutionary biology professor Sally Otto and infectious diseases physician Zain Chagla answered listeners’ questions about COVID-19 variants and vaccines as part of the show’s regular Ask Me Anything series.

Sally Otto and Dr. Zain Chagla answered callers' questions about vaccines and variants

People wear face masks as they brave the cold in Montreal. Dr. Zain Chagla and University of British Columbia professor Sally Otto joined Cross Country Checkup's Ian Hanomansing and answered listeners' COVID-19 questions. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Canada is on the cusp of seeing a dramatic rise in one COVID-19 variant that will overtake the older variant already circulating, according to evolutionary biologist Sally Otto.

"That happened over roughly a two-month period in the United Kingdom, and if it is here and already circulating at one to five per cent frequency in Canada, then we're going to see a similar sort of massive rise in this more transmissible form over the next couple of months," Otto, a professor at the University of British Columbia, said Sunday on Cross Country Checkup.

The variant, known officially as B117, was first identified in the U.K. and is believed to be more contagious. It has been blamed for an outbreak at Roberta Place, a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., that has infected 162 residents and staff members, and killed 54.

Concern over COVID-19 variants, and their ability to spread is growing — and infectious diseases physician Dr. Zain Chagla says they could have significant impacts on congregate living facilities and crowded workplaces in the short term.

"Unless you have radical changes in the foreseeable next few days to weeks, you're still going to see penetration into these settings, which is going to amplify things in these settings and in the community," said Chagla, who is also an associate professor of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton.

People wear face masks as they wait to be tested for COVID-19 at a clinic in Montreal. Professor Sally Otto says that the COVID-19 variant first detected in the United Kingdom could soon overtake the older strain circulating in Canada. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Otto and Chagla joined Checkup host Ian Hanomansing as part of the show's regular Ask Me Anything series, and answered listeners' questions about COVID-19 variants and vaccines.

Will there be more COVID-19 variants?

With Canada facing delays in COVID-19 vaccine deliveries, only a fraction of Canadians have actually received the coronavirus shot. 

Listener Meighan Whitehead asked if having a portion of the population immunized could lead to additional COVID-19 variants developing.

Otto, who tracks the spread of variants in this country, explained that low vaccination rates combined with the virus's continued circulation could push the coronavirus toward a "different selection pressure" and develop resistance.

"So we might see that, and the best way to prevent the evolution of resistance in COVID is to really reduce the case numbers now," she explained.

"That will reduce the chance that a mutation that escapes the vaccines-induced immune reaction will appear and spread."

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What happened to the flu in Canada?

Calling from Saint John, N.B., Jim Buckley told Checkup that there has been little chatter of the seasonal flu this winter, and asked whether the cases have "disappeared" or are combined with COVID-19 figures.

Thanks to physical distancing measures, precautions including wearing masks and lockdowns, flu cases are down dramatically, according to Chagla.

"I have never seen a flu year like this year," he said, adding that COVID-19 and influenza are distinct viruses and confirmed cases are counted separately.

In addition to public health measures, Chagla says part of the reason influenza cases are down across the country is because of travel restrictions. Typically, flu strains are imported to Canada through travel from warmer parts of the world.

With fewer people leaving and entering the country during the pandemic, "there's less ability for them to actually send it forward," he said.

But that doesn't mean we won't see a resurgence in the future.

"We haven't eradicated flu from the world, so it's going to come back. But it's really important to say that not only have we saved COVID lives, but we've saved flu lives by our measures," added Otto.

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Will family doctors give COVID-19 shots?

When the supply of COVID-19 vaccines steadies, Richard James calling from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., wondered whether physicians will administer shots from their family practice offices.

Chagla says that's something to expect in the future.

"There are lots of jurisdictions of Ontario and elsewhere in Canada that are looking at the community based distribution plan."

While vaccine supply is currently limited, when shipments increase — and in the event other vaccine candidates, including those from AstraZeneca, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson are approved — it will be not only be easier, but necessary, to distribute them more broadly.

"It's going to be hard to vaccinate 30 million individuals without necessarily using the places where they typically get immunized, and the infrastructure they get immunized," he said.

Written by Jason Vermes. Segment produced by Steve Howard.

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