The House

Researcher says coronavirus variants could require annual vaccinations, like the flu

A leading Canadian virologist says people could get annual COVID-19 shots in the future as the virus continues to mutate and produce new variants.

'Variations of this virus will be around for a long time' — Marc-André Langlois, University of Ottawa

The emergence of COVID variants means Canadians might have to receive updated vaccinations yearly, says a virologist. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool/Getty Images)

A leading Canadian virologist says people could get annual COVID-19 shots in the future as the virus continues to mutate and produce new variants.

Marc-André Langlois of the University of Ottawa is leading the new Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network, a research team that brings together experts from across Canada to study the science behind these variants, and how to manage their spread as much as possible.

"Variations of this virus will be around for a long time," Langlois said in an interview airing today on CBC's political affairs program The House.

"It may even become endemic, which means that every year when we get our flu shot, we'll be getting our coronavirus shot for whatever variants are circulating at that specific time."

As several provinces tighten restrictions, The House checks in with Dr. Lisa Salamon, an ER physician who's seeing ICU admissions increase first-hand, and Marc-André Langlois, the molecular virologist leading Canada's new Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network.

He's only a week into the job but Langlois already knows the challenge he and the 30 other researchers in the network face. Governments are keen for answers.

"They want to know if there's a variant that is more resistant to one type of vaccine rather than another, which would prompt a redirection of the supply chain of the vaccines to send a vaccine that is more effective against a certain variant in one region and redeploy the other vaccines in another," he said. "So there are huge implications surrounding these variants."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford takes off his mask to make an announcement during the daily briefing at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday April 1, 2021. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Canada is now experiencing a third wave in this year-long pandemic, prompting several provinces to reimpose strict lockdown measures this week to reduce the spread.

British Columbia and Ontario implemented sweeping restrictions and Quebec ordered lockdowns in three cities as infection rates spiked, threatening to overwhelm hospital intensive care units. Doctors are reporting that entire families are showing up at hospitals — a stark change from earlier waves of the virus.

'This is a new pandemic'

"The variants of concern are spreading rapidly. This is a new pandemic. We're now fighting a new enemy," Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday, announcing a partial lockdown for the next four weeks at least. "The new variants are far more dangerous than before. They spread faster and they do more harm than the virus we were fighting last year."

Dr. Lisa Salamon works as an emergency room physician with the Scarborough Health Network in Toronto's east end. In a separate interview on The House, she described seeing whole families arrive at the ICU because both parents are sick.

"And as you may imagine, that has to be really tough on those kids," she said. "So it's not been easy for the kids, for the teenagers and for the people in their early 20s when they have their parents in the ICU and they can't see them, they can't see them other than on an iPad."

Not only are more people getting sick, they're getting sicker thanks to these new variants. And unlike the experience of previous waves, doctors are reporting that more young people are showing up among those experiencing severe symptoms.

Too late for lockdowns?

While politicians urge Canadians to remain at home, Salamon said this week's new round of lockdowns may be coming too late — especially if Canadians ignore public health officials' pleas to stay at home this Easter weekend, made in the hopes of avoiding another spike in infections like the ones we saw following previous holidays.

"We saw what happened at Thanksgiving. Two weeks later, it was a disaster. We saw what happened at Christmas. Two weeks later, it was a disaster," Salamon said.

"We're already a disaster now, before the long weekend ... So it's going to be a lot worse after the long weekend. And I hear people saying, even patients, 'Oh, it's just my parents that are coming.' But then the parents get sick.

"The sooner that everybody follows the rules and not gathers, the sooner we can return to our normal way of life."

It all underscores the need to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, said Langlois, because the existing vaccines are working against the three variants that have been identified so far in Canada.

"They're extremely effective at reducing the severity of the disease, the transmission of the disease," he said. "So the vaccines are actually very, very good."

Even so, Langlois said more variants will emerge. He said one might be detected first in Canada as researchers here look at COVID-19 cases to identify not only the mutations of the virus, but how they might combine.

"We're looking at not just specific mutations but the combination of mutations," he told The House.

"And that's what makes things complex. As a single mutation comes up, we don't know what that does. And then that mutation might be linked to another one. And together, they give the variant a new function. So it's not a simple case of sequencing and looking at mutations ... it's understanding how these mutations work together to give the virus new properties."

Langlois said that's one of the reasons why annual COVID-19 shots likely will be necessary in the future. As the virus mutates and adapts, the vaccines will need to be updated — just like the annual flu shot.

"It's a question of time. I mean, this is what viruses do. Viruses, every time they replicate, they acquire new mutations," he said. "And it's very likely that all the vaccines that are deployed right now will need to be modified in the future."


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc

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