A variant of COVID-19 has been discovered in the UK over the holidays, prompting immediate investigation into possible resistance to the vaccine and increased restrictions on travel, especially from the UK.
The variant, known as B.1.1.7, has mutations that make it 40-70% more transmissible, according to the World Health Organisation. It has already been identified in several countries, including Denmark, South Africa, Italy, and Australia; the first known Canadian case was confirmed in Durham on December 26th.
Restrictions on travel and public spaces have increased in Ontario since the province’s lockdown on December 26.
While several countries, including the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, restricted all travel from the UK, flights from the UK to Canada were banned temporarily before being lifted on January 6. As of January 7, travel restrictions include negative COVID-19 test results for all travellers over the age of 5 before boarding an international flight into Canada and quarantine upon arrival. Rigorous screenings are in place for travellers from South Africa due to both the B.1.1.7 variant as well as indications of another variant that originated separately.
The first case of the South African variant in Canada was found in Alberta January from a recent traveller. They have remained in quarantine since their arrival.
The variant B.1.1.7 can be classified as a strain of COVID-19. A variant of a virus occurs when the virus develops mutations to its genetic code. When the number and nature of the mutations in a particular variant accumulate and significantly alter how the virus acts, it is known as a strain of the virus.
Evidence shows that the UK variant, while not more deadly, is more infectious than the strain of COVID-19 seen previously, leading to greater transmission, which may be more harmful overall. A more deadly variant would cause the number of fatalities to increase linearly while a more infectious variant would mean they increase exponentially, even though rate would be unchanged.
Another distinction of the B.1.1.7 variant is its impact on children. Previously, children were less likely to contract or transmit the virus than teenagers or adults. According to the New York Times, early studies indicate that children could be equally as at risk as adults to the new variant.
Investigations in the UK indicate that the vaccine will still be effective in combating the new variant. The nature of the mRNA vaccine developed by Moderna allows for the vaccine to be quickly adapted to counter a new resistant mutation, unlike traditional vaccines which would entail a much longer process. Research is ongoing and includes testing for people who have recovered from the virus or have already gotten vaccinated.
The World Health Organisation advises individuals to continue following the same precautions as before with greater vigilance, and to reconsider any non-essential travel both internationally and locally.