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Canada watching for new COVID-19 variant, warns against travel to U.K.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: WHO says new virus strain transmits easier, no evidence it’s deadlier' Coronavirus: WHO says new virus strain transmits easier, no evidence it’s deadlier
WATCH: World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday commented on the new variant of the novel coronavirus being experienced in the U.K. and South Africa, stating while it transmits easier, there's no evidence at this time that proves it's deadlier. Tedros also said virus mutations are "natural" and "expected." – Dec 21, 2020

Canadian federal health officials are so far offering few updates on the emergence of a new coronavirus strain in the U.K. that the World Health Organization noted on Monday appears to be more infectious.

At the same time, provincial health officials in Alberta are now urging anyone who has arrived from the U.K. in the past two weeks to immediately get tested and Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the potential for more rapid spread leaves him “extremely alarmed.”

“This is an extremely serious threat — one we must take seriously,” Ford said during a press conference on Monday in which he said the province will tighten health measures starting on Boxing Day.

The focus on the new strain comes after Canadian officials on Sunday evening announced a ban on incoming flights from the U.K. for three days as health experts work to gather more information on the new strain of the virus, which is not proven to be more deadly or cause more severe symptoms.

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Canadians who either have to travel to the U.K. for essential business or who choose to defy the urging of health officials to avoid any non-essential travel are also being urged to use “extra caution.”

Health officials on Sunday said no cases linked to the new strain have been identified yet in Canada while a statement issued Monday from Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the government is “closely monitoring” the new strain.

Read more: Canada to suspend all flights from U.K. for 72 hours as new coronavirus variant spreads

Countries around the world blocked travel from the U.K. over the weekend after reports of a new strain of coronavirus that appears to be transmitted more easily than the strain mainly circulating now.

This is not the first time a new strain has emerged, and it is common for viruses to evolve as they spread through hosts and environments.

But concerns about the potential for quicker spread come as many countries are already struggling to get the second wave of the virus under control, with exploding cases straining global health systems.

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Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said the indications that the new strain is around 70 per cent more infectious translates to an increase in the virus’s reproduction rate from 1.1 to 1.5, meaning countries may need to fight more to keep the spread contained.

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“In some senses, it means we have to work harder,” he explained.

“Even if the virus has become more efficient at spreading, it can be stopped.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: WHO says new virus strain from U.K. being studied' Coronavirus: WHO says new virus strain from U.K. being studied
Coronavirus: WHO says new virus strain from U.K. being studied – Dec 21, 2020

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto,  said it’s important to recognize there are a lot of questions that still aren’t clear about the new strain.

But even if it is more infectious, there’s still plenty people can do to fight it.

“The public health measures will work the same regardless of what variant of the virus is circulating,” he said. “Masks, physical distancing, avoiding confined, crowded settings — these are all very helpful.”
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There have also been questions on whether the variant strain identified in the U.K. could complicate efforts to test and vaccinate against COVID-19, given there appear to be early indications of small genetic changes in the spike protein of the coronavirus in the new strain.

Those spike proteins are a key target of the mRNA vaccines being rolled out in limited supplies in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. over recent weeks, and set to continue through the New Year.

COMMENTARY: How Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines work

However, there’s no evidence to suggest that’s the case, said another expert.

“I think that’s probably minimal in terms of its ability to complicate how we’re diagnosing COVID-19,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.
“This protein is hundreds of amino acids long and the changes here are up to 14 amino acids, some less than that,” he continued. “So you still have antibodies that are binding to a lot of different sites and a lot of them that are still preserved in all of this.”
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“So it shouldn’t affect vaccine development and should protect vaccine delivery.”

Ryan offered similar thoughts.

“What no variant has done yet is establish itself as having any higher level of severity or evading our diagnostics or hiding from the effectiveness of vaccines.”

Click to play video: 'Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination race' Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination race
Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination race – Dec 19, 2020

With files from Global’s Rachel Gilmore.

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