People walk along Mount Royal Avenue which has been turned into a pedestrian mall during the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Montreal. Additional cases of a more transmissible version of the COVID-19 virus have been popping up around Canada recently, and experts are concerned about what that could mean for an already unruly spread of the disease.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

People walk along Mount Royal Avenue which has been turned into a pedestrian mall during the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Montreal. Additional cases of a more transmissible version of the COVID-19 virus have been popping up around Canada recently, and experts are concerned about what that could mean for an already unruly spread of the disease.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Why it’s imperative to stop the spread of a more transmissible COVID-19 variant

A virus spreading around the community more easily leads to an increase in hospitalization and deaths

Additional cases of a more transmissible version of the COVID-19 virus have been popping up around Canada recently, and experts are concerned about what that could mean for an already unruly spread of the disease.

Studies suggest the variant, which first appeared in the U.K. before proliferating across several countries, is 50 to 70 per cent more transmissible than earlier strains.

Earlier this week, Ontario reported eight new cases of the variant, labelled B.1.1.7. No travel link was found for three of them, suggesting the more contagious form may already be spreading in the community.

“The fact that this is coming at a time where, in many parts of the country, cases are already increasing, that certainly compounds things,” said Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta.

“We need to take this seriously — not just the new variants, but the virus in general — and suppress transmission as much as possible so we can do away with nasty surprises like this.”

While there’s no evidence B.1.1.7 produces more severe disease, its increased rate of transmissibility makes it more threatening, experts say. A virus spreading around the community more easily leads to an increase in hospitalization and deaths once it gets into more vulnerable populations.

Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist in Winnipeg, says the variant “doesn’t have to be more severe to be serious.”

“We don’t want to scare people out of their minds, but we also don’t want people to think, ‘OK, it’s just another strain,’” Carr said. “There’s no evidence that the variant itself is more dangerous, but there’s also no evidence that it’s less impactful.”

Carr says scientists have seen more viral load in people infected with the variant, which makes them more contagious.

Mutations in the virus’s genetic material have also made the variant more transmissible by allowing it to attach better to our cells.

“Think of that spike protein as a magnet sticking even faster and stronger,” Carr said. “It gets in and replicates and progresses within our body, and then spreads it to somebody else.”

Studies from the U.K. showed that even with restrictive measures, the variant was spreading with an R-value of 1.45 — each positive case was infecting 1.45 others — instead of the 0.95 rate of the older version’s spread amid the same public health restrictions.

That’s how a variant can “quickly become a dominant strain,” Carr says.

“It just needs a few chances to be around groups of people, and it will spread fast.”

Experts say there’s no evidence right now that B.1.1.7 remains viable on surfaces longer, or spreads better outdoors than the other version of virus. So public health measures we’re currently practising — hand-washing, keeping two metres distance, and mask-wearing — should work against it.

Carr says to be cautious in cold weather, however, where dry air may allow viral droplets — from the new variant or not — to float around longer before hitting the ground.

Ontario’s chief medical officer said in a news conference Thursday that the presence of the new variant adds more pressure to be stringent with measures to reduce spread.

“With the steps taking place, we can curtail any movement so it does not become dominant,” Dr. David Williams said, referring to the province’s stricter stay-at-home orders that began Thursday.

B.1.1.7 isn’t the only variant that could be troublesome, and Dr. Ross Upshur of the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health says scientists are keeping an eye on one recently originating in South Africa and another emerging out of Brazil.

“And there’s likely more, because the more you look, the more you will find,” Upshur said.

Variants are discovered using genomic sequencing, a process where the virus’s genetic material is analyzed piece by piece to detect differences between strains. A variant can become a new strain when enough mutations have changed it considerably.

Upshur says it’s not surprising to see cases being detected in Canada, but it is concerning.

“The projections of the new variant’s impact means the already exceptionally high transmission rates across Canada would become even higher in the short term,” he said. “But independent of the new variant, we have to be more careful … We are in a drastically worse situation now than we were in the spring by orders of magnitude. So we better pull up our socks.”

Experts don’t think the new variant will impact the effectiveness of our current vaccines.

Schwartz warns, however, that more mutations will keep arising as we give the virus opportunities to replicate and change.

“We could see mutations to the point that (the virus) could possibly escape a response to vaccination,” he said, adding that regular booster shots may be required in that case.

“The longer we allow for uncontrolled spread, the more likely we’ll see variants of mutations.”

READ MORE: COVID clarity: Feds say 42-day gap for 2-dose vaccines OK as provinces race to immunity

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Vancouver Island Avalanche Centre (VIAC) is gearing up for another season of providing avalanche safety information. Black Press file photo
Black Diamond, PIEPS issue recall for avalanche transceivers

PIEPS said that avalanche incidents in 2017 and 2020 had prompted the recall, but defended the product

Sparwood mayor David Wilks was in attendance at the street party to discuss potential changes to Centennial Square.
Wilks: RDEK funds for Angel Flight a ‘no-brainer’

Wilks said he would be supporting the request for funds at Friday’s RDEK meeting

(Pixabay)
Francofest joins Griz Days for 2021

For musical francophone events will be streamed on Facebook as part of a virtual Griz Days

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
43 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

368 cases in the region remain active

Fernie Meat Market owner Mark Brown with the newest addition to his Griz Pins collection. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)
Griz Days this weekend!

The 44th annual Griz Days will be mostly online

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

The Coal Creek kiosk was vandalized last week. (Image courtesy of Fernie Snowmobile Association)
FSA seeks info in poor behaviour

The club has reported vandalism at its Coal Creek kiosk

The ALR areas within the Kootenays. (Image courtesy of the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission)
Fernie realtor pays $1.5 milion for ‘negligence’

Todd Fyfe was found negligent in passing on important zoning information to a buyer, affecting an investment in the area

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon speaks in the B.C. legislature, describing work underway to make a small business and tourism aid package less restrictive, Dec. 10, 2020. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends deadline for tourism, small business COVID-19 grants

Business owners expect months more of lost revenues

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Left – Right: Brandon Garlock, Body Garage; FPO Brett Uphill; EKFH Executive Director Brenna Baker; FF Trevor Fairweather; FF Scott Robinson; Dalton Garlock, Body Garage (Credit: Cory Robinson)
Hot calendar sales go to good causes

Fernie Fire and Rescue has donated $2,400 raised through the Firefight Calendar… Continue reading

Anti-pipeline protests continue in Greater Vancouver, with the latest happening Thursday, March 4 at a Trans Mountain construction site in Burnaby. (Facebook/Laurel Dykstra)
A dozen faith-based protestors blockade Burnaby Trans Mountain site in prayer

The group arrived early Thursday, planning to ‘block any further work’

Mid day at the Vancouver Port Intersection blockade on March 3, organized by the Braided Warriors. (Zoë Ducklow photo)
Anti-pipeline blockade at Vancouver intersection broken up by police

Demonstraters were demanding the release of a fellow anti-TMX protester

(Government of B.C.)

Most Read