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

There were 31 new COVID-19 cases in the Terrace local health area during the week of Feb. 21 to Feb. 27, 2021. (BC Centre for Disease Control)
Northwest B.C. remains a COVID-19 hot spot

There were 31 new cases reported in the Terrace local health area between Feb. 21 and Feb. 27

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president and Grand Chief Stweart Phillip speaking at a rally with chiefs from around B.C. outside of the Coastal GasLink pipeline route in 2019. The UBCIC said in an open letter to Terrace city council that it was “heartbroken” to hear about the situation. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs ‘heartbroken’ by McCallum-Miller resignation

Terrace’s first Indigenous councillor resigned Feb. 22, alleging systemic racism

Terrace RCMP found gloves containing suspected methamphetamine and purple fentanyl following a traffic stop on the afternoon of March 2, 2021. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Terrace RCMP seize suspected methamphetamine, fentanyl following traffic stop

Police observed passenger of the vehicle trying to hide bags of white substance between their legs

General voting day for the Terrace trustee by-election is Saturday, March 6 at the Terrace Sportsplex Multipurpose Room from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Black Press file photo)
Terrace trustee by-election: Meet the candidates

General voting day is March 6 at the Terrace Sportsplex Multipurpose Room from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Terrace RCMP arrested two men on Feb. 17 after they were told to leave the Sunshine Inn and then became combative with police. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Terrace RCMP arrest men visiting a person in COVID-19 isolation

Men attempted to strike police with a chair, threatened to kill officers when told to leave

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the B.C. legislature press theatre to give a daily update on the COVID-19 pandemic, April 6, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. nears 300,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, essential workers next

564 new cases, four deaths, no new outbreaks Thursday

Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne speaks in the B.C. legislature, March 4, 2021. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals, NDP sing in harmony on local election reforms

Bill regulates paid canvassers, allows people in condo buildings

(National Emergency Management Agency)
No tsunami risk to B.C. from powerful New Zealand earthquake: officials

An 8.1 magnitude earthquake shook the north of New Zealand Thursday morning

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Grand Forks’ Gary Smith stands in front of his Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster float. Photo: Submitted
Grand Forks’ Flying Spaghetti Monster leader still boiling over driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith, head of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster of B.C., said he has since spoken to lawyers

A Cowichan Valley mom is wondering why masks haven’t been mandated for elementary schools. (Metro Creative photo)
B.C. mom frustrated by lack of mask mandate for elementary students

“Do we want to wait until we end up like Fraser Health?”

(Pxhere)
B.C. research reveals how pandemic has changed attitudes towards sex, health services

CDC survey shows that 35 per cent of people were worried about being judged

Some Canadians are finding butter harder than usual, resulting in an avalanche of social media controversy around #buttergate. (Brett Williams/The Observer)
#Buttergate: Concerns around hard butter hit small B.C. towns and beyond

Canadians find their butter was getting harder, blame palm oil in part one of this series

Most Read