The discovery of two more Canadian cases of the COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom underlines the importance of genome sequencing so the country is not flying blind if or when a new mutation arrives at our borders, experts say.
On Sunday, Ontario’s Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Barbara Yaffe reported that a case of the COVID-19 variant had been detected in Ottawa, a day after the country’s first two cases were identified in Durham Region. The individual in Ottawa had recently travelled from the U.K.
Ontario’s Ministry of Health initially said the first two cases were found in individuals with no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contacts. Subsequent investigation revealed the couple had in fact been in contact with a recent traveller from the U.K., which was “new information not provided in earlier interviews.”
Another case was confirmed Sunday in an individual in the Vancouver Island area of British Columbia who recently travelled from the U.K.
Ontario reported 2,005 cases of COVID-19 on Sunday and 18 more deaths from the virus. Of the new cases, 572 are in Toronto, 331 in Peel Region, 207 in York Region and 140 in Windsor-Essex County. The province says 823 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, including 285 people in intensive care and 194 on ventilators.
For 13 days in a row, the province has now added more than 2,000 cases each day. Ontario imposed provincewide restrictions on Saturday to try to stem the spread of the virus.
The COVID-19 variant is not believed to cause more serious infections, but modelling and epidemiological studies seem to indicate it is more transmissible. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously said the variant is 70 per cent more transmissible than current strains.
Experts say the emerging cases further emphasize the need for ongoing and proactive genome sequencing, which can detect differences in viral variants to determine if various samples of the virus are epidemiologically linked. It’s critical to investigate how the virus mutates and if it has implications for the rollout of vaccines.
“I think this U.K. variant was probably a wake-up call for a lot of people that you really need to use genomics to find the new possible variants of significance,” said Jared Simpson, principal investigator at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and an assistant professor in the department of computer science at the University of Toronto.
“There may be other variants that pop up in a month from now so we need to definitely be proactive and performing genome-based surveillance and sharing it with the scientific community so that everybody can benefit from these type of findings,” he added.
The emergence of more cases of COVID variant – A “nightmare scenario”
A “nightmare scenario” would be if the virus mutated to the point where currently approved vaccinations would no longer be effective, said Andrew McArthur, an assistant professor at the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University.
“You’re really concerned that you spend tens of millions of dollars bringing your vaccine to market, and by the time it comes to market the virus is mutated and the vaccine no longer works,” he said.
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The good news is the two vaccines approved in Canada would be “very easy to retool,” meaning if they needed to be tweaked it could take a matter of weeks rather than months, he said.
Canada’s identification of the COVID-19 variant has been “quite rapid” since Canada closed its borders to travellers from the U.K. on Dec. 21.
“We’ve identified (the variant) within the span of a few days. The alarm was really raised that this is travelling,” Simpson said.
So far, Canada has sequenced about 25,000 coronavirus genomes, which is around five per cent of cases, Simpson said. One area where Canada could be doing better is releasing data publicly faster so the global scientific community can benefit from it.
Ontario’s provincial government has said it’s prepared to start a COVID-19 testing program in airports, but is seeking federal government support. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines had also been adjusted over the holiday weekend, with five hospitals offering shots on Sunday, 10 vaccination clinics opening on Monday, and all vaccine sites reopening on Tuesday.
The province says more than 11,000 vaccine doses have been administered in the first phase of the Pfizer-BioNTech program, which is limited to health-care workers and care providers at long-term-care homes.
On the individual level, the emergence of the COVID-19 variant doesn’t change anything, McArthur said.
“This is already a very effective virus. So on a practical level, nothing changes with a variance like this. You still need to wear your mask, keep physical distancing, stay within your household,” he said.
But it does provide an opportunity for a more systematic strategy when it comes to genomic surveillance, rather than just keeping an eye on developments and addressing them as they surface, McArthur added.
“We’re fighting this particular pandemic but we’re learning how to do this faster, cheaper and more accurately, which will get us ready for the next one.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh
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