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

Just Posted

The City of Red Deer sits at 249 active cases of the virus, after hitting a peak of 565 active cases on Feb. 22. (Black Press file image)
Red Deer down to 119 active COVID-19 cases

Province identifies 179 new cases Saturday

Member Terry Parsons’ custom built track vehicle.
Forestburg’s Area 53 Racetrack gears up for action-packed season

Site will also host a portion of the ‘Miles of Mayhem’ event in July

Sabrina Wilde in front of a recently purchased monster truck. Submitted.
Thorsby business women a finalist for 2021 Alberta Women’s Entrepreneurship Award

Sabrina Wilde with Lone Wolf Mechanical is a finalist for the entrepreneurial award.

Grade 12 students at Wetaskiwin Composite High School took place in the annual water fight off school property on June 11, 2021. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
Graduating students in Wetaskiwin throw water fight after being told it could result in suspension

Students were told their participation could result in them being barred from graduation ceremonies.

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Christian Eriksen in stable condition, Euro 2020 match resumes

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Airport ground crew offload a plane carrying just under 300,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine which is developed by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
1st batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines won’t be released in Canada over quality concerns

The vaccines were quarantined in April before they were distributed to provinces

The arrest south of Winnipeg occurred before Bernier was to arrive at a protest in the city. (Twitter/Maxime Bernier)
Maxime Bernier arrested following anti-rules rallies in Manitoba: RCMP

He’s been charged with exceeding public gathering limits and violating Manitoba’s requirement to self-isolate

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for the G7 Summit, at the airport in Newquay, United Kingdom, Thursday, June 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Details on Canada’s vaccine sharing plan coming Sunday, up to 100 million doses

Canada’s high commissioner to the UK says details will come after the G7 summit

Most Read