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Canada ‘actively monitoring’ new coronavirus variants

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WATCH ABOVE: Answering your COVID-19 questions, Dec. 24 – Dec 24, 2020

There is still no evidence that the new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 found in the United Kingdom and South Africa are in Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada has said.

In a statement on Thursday, the country’s health agency said it was conducting an analysis of Canada’s coronavirus cases and so far, the fresh strain had not been identified over 25,000 virus samples.

This comes as another variant of the novel coronavirus was also identified in Nigeria on Thursday, the head of Africa’s disease control body said, mounting fresh concerns about the mutations.

Read more: Canada could see ‘grotesque’ spike in coronavirus cases after holidays, expert says

Mutations, which are small changes in the genetic material of the virus, are common during outbreaks.

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“While early data suggest that these new variants may be more transmissible, to date there is no evidence that these variants cause more severe disease symptoms or have any impact on antibody response,” PHAC said, adding that more research was needed.

The new variant, first reported in the U.K. on Dec. 14, has led to a slew of countries, including Canada, France, Germany and Italy, to enact travel bans in an effort to quell the spread of the virus. Canada will continue to suspend all incoming flights from the U.K. until Jan. 6, 2021.

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Canadian health authorities are also advising extra caution to Canadians travelling to the U.K. or South Africa.

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“We continue to advise against non-essential travel to other countries and are advising extra caution if you must travel to the United Kingdom or South Africa,” Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said.

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In a press conference on Wednesday, Tam said the new strain will likely eventually make its way to Canada, however, there are several variables that are helping slow it down.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that this variant is in many different countries,” she said Tuesday, adding that “it may become one of the more common strains.”

Meanwhile, the developments have also raised questions about whether the newly approved coronavirus vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna will protect people against the new strains.

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While not impossible, mutations affecting the efficacy of vaccines is doubtful, according to Levon Abrahamyan, a virologist at the University of Montreal.

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The first doses of Moderna’s vaccine arrived in Canada on Thursday, with the rollout set to begin next week.

While Tam said she was hopeful, with the approval of a second COVID-19 vaccine for use in Canada, she called on Canadians to continue following public health recommendations.

“It is important to remember, however, that initial vaccine supplies will remain limited as vaccine rollout continues in Canada and we must not forget that infection rates remain very high in many parts of the country,” Tam said.

The country has been gripped by a second wave of the pandemic.

In Quebec, a provincewide lockdown went into effect on Friday, with businesses deemed non-essential ordered to remain closed until at least Jan. 11. Similar restrictions come into effect in Ontario on Saturday.

Read more: Should provinces reserve COVID-19 vaccine 2nd doses or administer them all right away?

While some provinces, including Quebec and Ontario, have said they don’t plan to release new data on the spread of COVID-19 on Christmas, New Brunswick reported a single new infection Friday.

All other provinces as well as all the territories announced that they were not going to report new data until either after Christmas or Boxing Day.

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As of Thursday, federal public health authorities said there were more than 75,000 active cases of COVID-19 across Canada and that an average of 3,392 people with COVID-19 were in hospitals across the country during the seven-day period ending Dec. 23.

An average of 114 deaths associated with the virus were reported each day during that same period.

— With files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Rachael D’Amore.