Two new variants of COVID-19, known as P.1 and B1.351 have emerged in Toronto and experts said they could be more transmissible than previous strains.
The P.1 variant was first detected in Brazil while B1.351 originated in South Africa.
“The problem with these strains is that they may be a bit more infectious due to mutations called N501Y and E484K that may make prior immunity — either from an earlier infection or from some vaccines,” Dr. David Fismanan, an expert in the epidemiology of infectious diseases, said.
“Some vaccines, like the one made by Astra Zeneca, don’t seem to work against the South African mutant (B1.351),” he said.
Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said across multiple news conferences that variants could grow into a significant public health threat, “spreading widely and with potentially overwhelming speed thanks to mutations that make the virus easier to catch.”
“The variant spread from elsewhere gives us every reason to believe variants will spread here in the same way,” she said.
As far as scientists know, the severity and symptoms of the new strains are similar to previous ones, but much remains unknown. The Public Health Agency of Canada has been working to detect and keep an eye on the new variants of the virus in the country in order to better understand their dangers.
“If — as expected — variants of concern become the dominant strain in Toronto there is an even greater likelihood of case counts increasing, given increased transmissibility is proven by science to be true,” de Villa said.
Fisman said although there is no evidence that the Brazil and South African strains are more lethal – like the UK strain – they still may be more contagious and evade immune responses.
“The approach to avoiding infection with these strains is the same as with older strains: avoid closed, close, crowded places and mask up,” Fisman said.
De Villa said that the vaccines will be a step toward returning to normalcy and help prevent the spread of the variants.
“Canada has approved two vaccines, from Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna, and two await approval, which I expect will be soon – from Oxford-AstraZeneca, and Johnson and Johnson,” De Villa said.
Staying home as much as possible and not getting too comfortable going out in public are crucial in preventing the spread of the new variants.
“We still have to be careful,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Feb 15. “We can’t be letting our guards down.”
Trudeau said the new variants have now been detected in all 10 provinces.
“Many provinces are also reporting evidence of community transmission of these strains,” he said. “Nobody wants a new wave, especially not with these new variants that are far more contagious.”
Trudeau said Canada is taking steps to slow down the transmission of COVID-19 strains through enhanced travel protocols, including testing and a mandatory hotel quarantine, more thorough screening for new variants and increased protection for more vulnerable communities.
He urges Canadians to be cautious and mindful while the risk of these variants lingers throughout the country.