“I think at this point, the clear and present danger is the U.K. variant and then the South African variant is starting to be on the horizon.”

Author of the article:

Taylor Blewett

Publishing date:

Feb 03, 2021  •  February 3, 2021  •  5 minute read

Medical personnel in protective clothing wait for people getting vaccines against COVID-19 at a vaccination centre Photo by ARNE DEDERT /POOL/AFP via Getty Images Nearly a year into the fight against the virulent enemy that is SARS-CoV-2, Ontario is now facing down variants of the virus that could reverse recent gains and demand heightened vigilance from a pandemic-weary population that remains mostly unvaccinated.

“What’s shaping up right now is, it feels – I’ve been in the eye of a hurricane before,” said Dr. Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and professor at uOttawa’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health.

“I think the likely scenario is that we’re going to be in a bit of a calm, as we are in lockdown now and the cases go down, but that will be not a calm that the storm is over, but (that) the first part of the storm is over. And in spring — it could be early spring, middle spring, late spring — then the next wave of the hurricane will be coming.”

To date, Ontario has logged 109 cases of the SARS-CoV-2 variant that’s estimated to have first emerged in the U.K. in September, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and has since been identified in countries around the world. It’s associated with increased transmissibility, and in January, U.K. scientists reported evidence suggesting it may also be associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variants — but more studies are needed to confirm this, the CDC writes.

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A laboratory technician uses a pipette device to process samples to test for the novel coronavirus, at Biogroup Laboratory’s lab in London, England on January 21, 2021. Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS /AFP via Getty Images While cases of COVID-19 have been decreasing in Ontario, health advisors said last week that the spread of the U.K. variant presents a “significant threat” to controlling the pandemic, and that it could become the dominant strain of the virus in the province by March.

And then on Monday, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health announced the first case in the province linked to a variant that emerged in South Africa. That case, in a Peel region resident, remained under investigation, but had no known history of travel or contact with a traveller when Dr. David Williams broke the news. While there is currently “substantial uncertainty” as to whether this variant causes a change in disease severity, Williams said South African data indicates that the variant quickly displaced other circulating lineages in the country, and it appears to have a higher viral load, which suggests that it may be more transmissible.

A scientist points at a sequenced and analyzed mutant version of the coronavirus, as the spread of COVID-19 continues, at the Bioscientia headquarters in Ingelheim, Germany, January 27, 2021. Photo by KAI PFAFFENBACH /REUTERS “I think at this point, the clear and present danger is the U.K. variant and then the South African variant is starting to be on the horizon,” said Manuel.

While the protective practices that have been employed to guard against COVID-19 — masking, distancing — still work against the variants, Manuel said that in general, “the main consideration is that we have to be better.”

And when it comes to opening up the province, currently under lockdown and a stay-at-home order, Manuel suggested that more voices are opining that daily infection rates need to be lower in order to be prepared for the new variant. He also flagged testing and contact-tracing as tools that could be better utilized in many parts of the province to control variant spread.

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File: A passenger is covered head to toe at the international arrivals area at Pearson International Airport on January 26, 2021. Photo by Ernest Doroszuk /POSTMEDIA Last Friday, Ontario unveiled a six-point plan to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants in the province, including mandatory arrival testing for international travellers at Toronto’s Pearson airport, asking all asymptomatic contacts of cases to repeat testing on or after day 10 of quarantine and that the whole household of all contacts stay home until the contact has a negative test, as well as enhanced screening.

Under the last category, Public Health Ontario is leading the provincial lab network in ramping up capacity to screen all positive COVID-19 tests in Ontario for known variants within several days of processing, as of Feb. 3.

In a statement provide to this newspaper, PHO said it will have the ability to screen samples for a mutation seen in the U.K., South African and Brazilian variants, and will complete whole genome sequencing for 10 per cent of the samples that screen positive.

“The intent is to conduct this additional screening for four weeks to better understand the prevalence of the three VOCs in Ontario and to see how they are moving in the province. We will then reassess the additional screening after that four-week period,” the statement noted.

FILE: Pharmacy staff at Kingston Health Sciences Centre prepare the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for southeastern Ontario as part of the province-wide vaccination campaign. Photo by Matthew Manor /KHSC Then, there’s vaccination — Ontario announced Tuesday that it’s pushing its goal of completing first-dose vaccination in all long-term care, high-risk retirement and First Nations elder care homes from Feb. 5 to Feb. 10, amidst vaccine supply disruptions. Overall, 344,615 doses have been administered in Ontario, and 72,057 of the province’s residents have been fully vaccinated.

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At the same time, there is still much clarity to be gleaned about the effectiveness of vaccines when it comes to these variants of concern. Health Canada says it’s working with manufacturers and international regulators to assess this for approved vaccines and treatments, and if an issue is identified, it will “work quickly with the manufacturers and public health laboratories to mitigate those risks and inform Canadians.”

According to the CDC, studies so far suggest that antibodies generated through Pfizer and Moderna vaccination recognize the variants circulating globally — but this is being investigated closely.

A Jan. 29 article in Nature detailed how scientists are exploring vaccine redesign, with growing evidence that new SARS-CoV-2 variants “can evade immunity produced by vaccines or previous infections.”

Reuters reported the following day that clinical trial data on the Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines show the South African variant is reducing their ability to guard against the disease.

FILE: Empty bottles of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON /AFP via Getty Images “These variants sort of are a game changer. It’s essentially blunting our tools,” said Earl Brown, an emeritus professor of virology at uOttawa. While he said people at Pfizer and Moderna are working on “vaccine version two,” and could actually come up with a new shot in a matter of weeks, the process required to get such a vaccine into arms would take a while longer.

“The pressure’s on even more so for getting better drugs for treating people who are sick,” said Brown. And while there are a few effective treatments, there are “no magic bullets yet.”

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On Monday, Williams said he’s doubtful the South African variant case identified will be the only one Ontario sees, and while another variant that emerged in Brazil hasn’t yet been detected in the province, “it would not surprise me if we did see the Brazilian one in the future as well.”

Meanwhile, Williams said “It remains essential that Ontarians continue to adhere to the stay-at-home order, and rigorously follow the basic public health measures that we’ve said,” explaining that protection against these variants involves the same methods employed to guard against COVID-19 transmission, generally.

“You need to do what we’ve said before, and do it well and do it carefully.”

With files from Reuters and The Canadian Press

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