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What you need to know about coronavirus variants

In this March 11, 2020 photo, a laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs, in Lake Success, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Summary

Variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been identified in multiple countries


Viral researchers still trying to figure out the extent to which these new variants pose a risk


Research indicates current variants do not cause more severe illness and still respond to vaccines we have


VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – “I hear the word ‘COVID-19 variant,’ and I get freaked out.”

It’s a refrain continued to be heard throughout Metro Vancouver – particularly by parents with kids in schools in Fraser Health – and the rest of the world. The prospect of COVID-19 is frightful enough, but what sort of additional threats do variants and mutations of the virus pose to humans?

The initial answer from most researchers is they aren’t entirely sure, but they’re learning quickly. The world’s top viral researchers have been anticipating, but still trying to figure out, the extent to which these new variants pose a risk to us, but so far data suggests they won’t make us any more ill than the original strain.

What is a variant?

At its root, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, is a variant of the virus which led to the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak. That virus, which also emerged in China in late 2002, was much more deadly, but far less virulent. Coronaviruses, however, are notorious for their ability to adapt to get inside cells and cause an infection.

SARS infected an estimated 8,096 people worldwide, killing 774, meaning it had a 9.6 per cent mortality rate. COVID-19’s death rate is hovering around two per cent, but has infected many more people. Of the 117 million infected, COVID-19 has killed nearly 2.5 million people worldwide.

At present, researchers are unable to say whether there is any proof variants of the virus are more deadly, however, research is on-going. At this point, most studies suggest the variants of SARS-CoV-2 shouldn’t make us anymore ill than the original strain.

What are the different variants of SARS-CoV-2?

B.1.1.7
According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K., has a number of changes to its spike gene, which are proteins that allow viruses to attach to and enter our cells. Research suggests this means this variant could be up to 70 per cent more infectious and can spread much faster. However, research so far shows none of the changes to the gene would render our current vaccines ineffective.

B.1.351
The B.1.351 variant was first isolated in South Africa and also has changes to the spike gene, but none of the mutations appear to impact how effective our current vaccines are.

P.1
P.1 is one of the newer variants and was first identified in Brazil. The Mayo Clinic says because of a lack of data, it doesn’t know exactly what makes this variant unique, but does suggest while it may not be more dangerous, it might be able to slip by the immune system and re-infect someone who has either been immunized or has had a different strain of COVID-19. However, research is still underway to get a better understanding.

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Why are these variants in Canada when we have travel restrictions?

Health officials are still trying to figure out how the variants made their way to our country, or if they began here. Because these variants were only identified in other countries, it is still possible they emerged in Canada or other countries on their own.

How much should I be worried about these variants?

The term variants may sound concerning, but there is no evidence at this point to suggest our current vaccine programs in B.C. and around the world can’t continue to respond well to treatment.

Data from the provincial Ministry of Health shows the number of deaths among those getting vaccines in long-term care facilities has dropped significantly over the past week or so.

As long as the variants don’t mutate into a strain which becomes resistant, the expectation is we could see a return to some form of the old normal by the fall.