Ontario has confirmed two cases of the fast-spreading COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, the province’s Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health announced Saturday.
The cases were detected in a couple in Durham Region with no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contacts, the Ministry of Health said in a news release. Both individuals are now in isolation.
Modelling and epidemiological studies seem to indicate that the COVID-19 variant identified in the U.K. can spread easier and faster. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously said the variant is 70 per cent more transmissible than current strains, the Associated Press reported.
There is no evidence pointing to the variant causing more severe illness.
“This further reinforces the need for Ontarians to stay home as much as possible and continue to follow all public health advice, including the provincewide shutdown measures beginning today,” said Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Barbara Yaffe.
Durham Region’s health department refused to specify in which community the couple lives.
Ontario imposed a travel ban on all flights arriving from the U.K., which is still in effect until Jan. 6. Still, the province is urging the federal government to partner with Ontario to install testing at Toronto Pearson International Airport due to the potential risk of inbound international travellers spreading the variant.
The COVID-19 variant was first identified in the U.K. and has now been detected in Denmark, Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands.
According to the Ministry of Health, Ontario is the first province to identify the variant.
In a statement, the Public Health Agency of Canada said its National Microbiology Laboratory works with the provinces and territories to monitor cases of COVID-19 through ongoing analysis of genomic databases in Canada. It was through this process that the two cases were identified.
The agency said it expects other cases of this variant will be found in Canada.
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Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute and the University of Toronto, said there are almost certainly more cases of the variant that haven’t been detected.
“Is this a matter of us detecting it just because we’re starting to look for it? Meanwhile, how much of it had been here for a while?”
He said another big question is how the Durham Region couple got infected, as they have no known travel history.
But he emphasized the need to be cautious about the finding. He said there needs to be more research into the variant for greater clarity on if it does in fact lead to higher rates of transmission.
“It’s not truly entirely clear what the significance of this variant is … I don’t think anyone can conclusively say to what extent is it more efficiently transmitted compared to other variants of COVID-19,” Bogoch said.
On the individual level, the spread of the COVID-19 variant would not change public health guidelines such as wearing masks, physical distancing and washing hands, Bogoch said.
Anna Banerji, an infectious disease expert at the University of Toronto, was less conservative in her outlook. She believes it’s quite clear the variant is more contagious.
“The fact that it spreads through England in about four months, and it’s (now) the majority strain … this strain has an advantage over the other circulating strain of coronavirus,” she said.
The big takeaway for her is that the spread of the variant virus further emphasizes how critical it is to get vaccines out to the population.
“The only way to get us back to business, get us back to seeing people and getting our lives back to normal is through vaccination … all this tells me is that it is a race against time to get the vaccines out.”
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh
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