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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, four variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are causing concern. They include:

  • Aplha B.1.1.7 or 501Y.V1 - first identified in the United Kingdom
  • Beta B.1.351 or 501Y.V2 - first identified in South Africa
  • Gemma P.1, B.1.1.28 or E484K - first identified in Brazil
  • Delta B.1.617 - first identified in India
  • Omicron B.1.1.529 – First identified in South Africa

Research is suggesting that these variants are associated with increased transmissibility (they spread more easily and quickly among people). Multiple cases of each of these four variants 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.

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 effective against the new fast-spreading variants of the virus.

It is important to continue 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 258 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 who have not received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
    • 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 and, workplace safety measures.
  4. Strengthen Case and Contact Management
    • Decreased threshold for who is considered a high-risk contact.
    • Increased testing of contacts.
    • Reaching cases and contacts as soon as possible and continuing to monitor through their quarantine period.
  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.

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.

Which variants of concern (VOCs) have been detected in the confirmed cases within the Porcupine Health Unit (PHU) area?

Currently the variant B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and B.1.617.2 have been detected in our area. For a summary of VOC confirmed cases in Ontario, see Public Health Ontario’s COVID-19 Daily Epidemiological Summary.