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COVID-19: Variants of Concern

Multiple SARS-CoV-2 variants are circulating globally. In Ontario, both travel-related and community transmission cases of the variants have been identified. Currently, three variants of the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are causing concern. They include:

A strain identified in the United Kingdom (UK), known as B.1.1.7 or 501Y.V1

  • This variant was first identified in the United Kingdom.
  • Since December 2020, the variant has become the dominant strain in southeast England and has been detected in multiple health units across Ontario.
  • Research suggests that this variant is associated with increased transmissibility (spreads more easily and quickly among people).
  • It is estimated that this variant is at least 56% more contagious than the more common strain of the virus, but could be as high as 75%.
  • In March, this variant will likely be the most dominant strain in Ontario.

A strain identified in South Africa, known as B.1.351 or 501Y.V2

  • The variant was first identified in South Africa.
  • Research suggests that this variant has a higher viral load (higher amounts of virus in the body), which seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants.
  • Multiple cases have been detected in Ontario.

A strain identified in Brazil, known as P.1, B.1.1.28 or E484K

  • The variant was first identified in Brazil.
  • Early research suggest that this variant is more transmissible and could increase the risk of re-infection in individuals who have recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection.
  • Multiple cases have been detected in Ontario.

Are these new variants more dangerous?

On-going research is showing that three variants have increased transmissibility. This means they are likely to spread more easily between individuals.

Higher transmission rates mean increased demands on the health care system (i.e., more cases, more hospitalizations, more admissions to intensive care units, and more death).

While evidence is still emerging, there is concern that some of the variants may carry a higher risk of severe illness or death. Provincial modelling suggests that a variant may become the dominant strain of the virus in Ontario by March 2021.

Research is ongoing to determine if these new variants cause more severe illness or an increased risk of death.

In the meantime, keep following infection control measures and public health guidance to reduce your risk of infection with the COVID-19 virus.

Will the vaccine still work on the new variants?

The two COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are likely to remain effective against the new fast-spreading variants of the virus but research is needed.

In the meantime, keep following infection control measures and public health guidance for avoiding infection with the COVID-19 virus.

Why are there new strains of the virus?

All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, change over time through mutation. A mutation can change a virus’s ability to infect people.

The potential for mutations in a virus increases with the number of cases. With over 90 million confirmed cases worldwide, the virus has had abundant opportunity to mutate.

How is Canada and Ontario responding?

Ontario has implemented a six-point plan to stop and prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 variants. The plan includes:

  1. Mandatory Testing of Travellers
    • Mandatory on-arrival testing for international travellers at Toronto Pearson International Airport
    • Increased border controls reduce travel across international borders
  2. Enhanced Screening and Sequencing
    • Screening all positive COVID-19 tests in Ontario, for the known variants within two or three days of initial processing
  3. Maintain Public Health Measures
    • Enhanced awareness of public health measures, workplace safety measures and following the Stay-At-Home Order
  4. Strengthen Case and Contact Management
    • Decreased threshold for who is considered a high-risk contact
    • Increased testing of contacts
  5. Enhancing Protection for Vulnerable Populations
    • Accelerating vaccinations for Ontario’s most vulnerable populations (Long-Term Care, High-Risk Retirement Homes, and First Nations Elder Care Home Residents)
    • Increased audits for infection prevention and control measures in high risk congregate living settings
    • Implementation of rapid testing in some workplaces and high priority settings
  6. Leveraging Data
    • Continue to use data to support decision-making and informed pandemic response

To view more, visit the Ontario Newsroom.

The provincial diagnostic lab network is ramping up capacity to screen all positive COVID-19 tests in Ontario for known variants within two to three days of initial processing. This new measure took effect February 3, 2021.

How can I protect myself from these new variants?

Since these new variants are more easily transmitted, more rigorous application of public health measures is necessary:

  • Drastically reduce your contacts
  • Screen regularly for symptoms
  • Stay home and isolate if you have any symptoms and contact your local COVID-19 Assessment Centre
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Sneeze and cough into your sleeve
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth
  • Maintain physical distance
  • Wear a mask in indoor public spaces
  • Wear a mask indoors and outdoors when physical distancing of 2 metres/6 feet cannot be maintained with anyone outside your household
  • Do not have gatherings indoors with people outside your household.

Scientists are working to learn more about these variants to better understand how easily they might be transmitted, whether they could cause more severe illness and whether currently authorized vaccines will protect people against them.

Has a variant of concern (VOC) been detected in the confirmed cases within the Porcupine Health Unit (PHU) area?

At this time, the PHU has been notified of a positive screen for a variant of concern in a confirmed case.  Further testing is being done to confirm the screen and identify the exact variant. The PHU will advise if a VOC is confirmed in our area. For a summary of VOC confirmed cases in Ontario, see Public Health Ontario’s COVID-19 Daily Epidemiological Summary.