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What the COVID-19 variants could mean for masks, lockdowns and vaccines

Click to play video 'Canada reports more COVID-19 variant cases' Canada reports more COVID-19 variant cases
WATCH: Canada reports more COVID-19 variant cases – Jan 26, 2021

As the coronavirus pandemic has progressed, so too have public health recommendations aimed at stopping it.

Variants — or distinct changes to a virus — are one of the more recent COVID-19 challenges. But just because the virus is changing, doesn’t necessarily mean our habits need to change too.

Read more: Community spread of new COVID-19 variants may be happening in Canada

“It hasn’t changed the playing field,” said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary.

“We’re simply going to do more of what we’ve been doing. The virus itself isn’t using any new mechanism, it’s just more efficient at what it does.”

Not a ‘magical’ new virus

The variant first discovered in the U.K. — known as B.1.1.7 — is still being carefully studied.

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Researchers believe it is up to 70 per cent more contagious than other variants. A recent, separate study has suggested that it’s also possibly more lethal, though experts aren’t as confident in that data.

Click to play video 'Study on high-transmission COVID-19 variants in Canada' Study on high-transmission COVID-19 variants in Canada
Study on high-transmission COVID-19 variants in Canada – Jan 26, 2021

For now, there’s a lot of uncertainty. While that uncertainty has struck a chord, “this is not some new magical virus,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital.

It’s normal for viruses to mutate, he said. There are already many different versions, or variants, of COVID-19 circulating in different parts of the world. Most of them have not been meaningful enough to draw concern.

All signs point to the variant from the U.K. being more transmissible, which could pose a problem for Canada if it becomes more established here, experts say.

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Read more: Inside the hunt for coronavirus variants in Canada

But “there’s nothing new that has to be invented” to combat it, said Jenne, at least at an individual level.

“The defense mechanisms we’ve brought in — they work. The big difference is these new variants are very good at taking advantage of, or exploiting, any gaps in those defenses.”

He continued: “If we get lax in [our defence efforts] … if we give them an opening or an opportunity, it seems this virus is more easily spread.”

Personal changes

So, what does that mean for you?

Not much, said Bogoch. All the same prevention and safety protocols still apply, he said. But now, more than ever, they need full compliance.

Click to play video 'COVID-19 variants raise new questions over masking' COVID-19 variants raise new questions over masking
COVID-19 variants raise new questions over masking – Jan 28, 2021

 

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That includes mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and sanitization, avoiding touching your face and, simply staying home as much as possible.

“It’s doing what we’re doing, but better.”

“And the proof is in the pudding. In the U.K., which saw an explosion of variant cases at Christmastime, saw a rapid reduction when basic control measures were actually initiated and adhered to.”

Some small changes could be considered, added Jenne. You could reduce your time in essential places, like grocery stores, he said, and avoid slipping your mask off to take a sip of coffee around others.

At the end of the day, these behaviours still revolve around the same goal: limiting your exposure time.

Click to play video 'Growing concerns about COVID-19 variant spreading in Canada' Growing concerns about COVID-19 variant spreading in Canada
Growing concerns about COVID-19 variant spreading in Canada – Jan 21, 2021

“It’s not a direct association to the variant,” he said. “It’s simply that we know that the longer you’re in an environment with someone infected or someone without a mask, the chances of catching it go up.”

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Jenne acknowledged that guidance around masks has changed in recent weeks. While it’s garnered some confusion, he said the changes aren’t directly related to the spread of variants.

“It reflects a better understanding of masks and also observations of the public,” he said. “Not everyone has been wearing what we would consider a good mask.”

Canada’s recently updated recommendations now say Canadians should wear masks that are made of three layers, including a filter. The country’s top doctor, Theresa Tam, called it “an additional layer of protection.”

In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci has recommended double masking.

“Fauci specifically stated that a lot of people are wearing a single-layer mask at the moment, which is something we’ve been discouraging for months in Canada,” Jenne said.

Click to play video 'Tam adds layer to advice about face masks' Tam adds layer to advice about face masks
Tam adds layer to advice about face masks – Nov 3, 2020

Policy changes

Changes enacted due to the variants are likely to come from a policy level, said Bogoch.

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The question becomes – Are current measures still going to work if the virus is even slightly more infectious?

Looking at how to reduce the number of exposures and create safer indoor spaces should be “front-and-center,” Bogoch said.

“They’re also the highest-yield solutions,” he said. “We need provincial and local measures to create safer workspaces, improve ventilation in schools and indoor settings, and improve paid sick leave to prevent people from going to work in the first place.”

“It’s about looking for the weaknesses in those settings and mitigating them as much as you can,” he added.

Read more: New U.K. COVID-19 variant case found in Simcoe Muskoka, may be linked to long-term care outbreak

Travel concerns have also become more pressing as these variants have emerged.

Caroline Colijn, a mathematician and epidemiologist with Simon Fraser University, considers clamping down on travel her “top recommendation right now.”

Canada has barred most foreigners from entering the country since March, and requires two weeks of self-isolation at home upon return. New, additional rules came into effect Jan. 7, requiring passengers returning from abroad to show proof of negative results on a COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure.

There have been hints more travel restrictions could be coming, though it’s not clear in what form.

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Click to play video 'Ottawa considers tougher measures to discourage pandemic travel' Ottawa considers tougher measures to discourage pandemic travel
Ottawa considers tougher measures to discourage pandemic travel – Jan 25, 2021

Colijn said essential travel needs to be more clearly defined by leaders, and quarantine rules more strongly enforced once people arrive. More stringent restrictions on land border crossings and further limitations on travel within the country will also help, she added.

Her recent projections for Canada show a skyrocketing spring wave fuelled by community spread of more contagious variants.

But “there’s still a good chance that we can prevent — or at least really delay — large numbers of this high-transmission variant coming into Canada,” she told The Candian Press.

Vaccine rush

The good news is current vaccines all appear to protect against the main variants.

Both Moderna and Pfizer have said in recent weeks that each of their two-dose regimens is expected to be protective against the emerging strains detected, to date.

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Read more: COVID-19 variant ‘mutants’ being examined for vaccine impacts, says Fauci

Experts say the vaccines might need to be updated down the line, but it can be done quickly thanks to the nature of mRNA technology — which Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna both use in their vaccines.

We have to remember we still don’t have detailed or granular data about multiple aspects of these variants, said Jenne.

Because of that, he said there’s more reason to be extra cautious. He pointed to Alberta’s decision to delay easing restrictions further until there’s a better understanding of where these variants are.

“I think that’s the right move. We don’t have to rush to decisions,” he said.

— With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters