New national public health modelling, released Friday, acknowledges the progress Canada has made in getting older, more vulnerable populations vaccinated, but yet again emphasizes the threat virus variants, like the B.1.1.7 variant, bring to Canadians who aren’t yet up for vaccination.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor, said the potential increased severity of this variant is reflected in the new data. It shows the numbers of cases have declined in Canadians aged 80 and older, but are rising among those aged 20 to 39.
“The not-so-good news is that circulating of COVID-19 among younger, more mobile and socially connected adults, present an ongoing risk for spread into high-risk populations and settings, and continuing transmission in the community,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor.
“It is important to remember that although severe illness is less common in younger age groups, serious or prolonged illness can occur at any age, and there are emerging concerns about increasing severity of the B.1.1.7 variant in adults.”
Evidence that the B.1.1.7 variant is more lethal continues to grow. New research links the variant, first discovered in the U.K., to a higher risk of hospitalization and death. One study, published by the journal Nature, suggests the strain is, on average, 55 per cent deadlier than earlier versions of the virus. There was already evidence the variant is more contagious. Depending on how it’s measured, it can be anywhere between 40 and 70 per cent more transmissible than the original strain.
To date, more than 7,100 cases of variants of concern (VOC) have been reported across Canada. They make up a “high proportion of new reported cases in the most heavily impacted provinces,” Tam said.
The B.1.1.7 variant now accounts for more than 90 per cent of those cases.
In Ontario, for example, many of the province’s current active cases are highest among those aged 20 to 29. Variants are believed to be behind much of that growth. In British Columbia and Saskatchewan, public health officials have warned that variants appear to be impacting young people and that otherwise healthy young people are ending up in hospital.
The changing patterns come up against a slowly burning vaccination effort — so far only focused on the elderly or, in some cases, those between 60 and 65.
It’s a “very tight race” between vaccines and variants in Canada, Tam said.
She said stronger measures are needed to control the spread of these variants, particularly as Canada’s vaccination drive is only on the cusp of shifting into high gear, as vaccine deliveries ramp up.
“We’ve been saying all along that if we ease measures too soon, before enough people are vaccinated, the epidemic will resurge even stronger,” she said.
“With the increasing circulation of highly contagious variants, the threat of uncontrolled epidemic growth is significantly elevated. This is why measures must be stronger, stricter, and sustained long enough to suppress rapid epidemic growth of variants of concern.”
New reports analyzing data from Ontario suggest variants substantially increase the risk of serious illness, compared to the original version of the virus, SARS-CoV-2. That includes significant increases in hospitalizations, ICU admittance and death.
When asked about the yet-to-be-released data, Tam said the report substantiates what’s been seen in Europe.
“These severity indicators can be seen across all age groups of the adult population. It’s a very important set of information that should drive home, to all of us, why it’s important to maintain measures,” she said.
“Given the B.1.1.7 variant being more severe, you’re going to get more younger age groups in hospitals and ICUs.”
She noted that Ontario isn’t alone in that risk. “Why would we think this would be different anywhere else?” she continued. “As soon as those variants take hold, things could escalate anywhere.”
It underscores the value in providing vaccines to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, Tam said. She described it as a “protect each other” strategy, where the goal would be to vaccine both the high-risk individuals and those who can give the virus to them, or those who are more likely to spread it.
In the meantime, until vaccine rollout catches up, restrictions need to be top of mind for provinces. Tam said there’s “merit” in provinces taking regional approaches with their restrictions, but noted that “up-and-down measures” may not be the most effective defense.
Now is not the time to relax, she said, adding it’s the “last big push to keep the path clear for vaccines.”
The grim outlook comes as Canada reaches a positive milestone in its COVID-19 vaccination drive, with more than 11 per cent of eligible adult Canadians having received at least one dose of a vaccine.
That includes 60 per cent of people older than 80 and 19 per cent of those between 70 and 79.
Tam praised the progress but stressed that those numbers aren’t enough to stop the spread of the virus yet — particularly as cases of variants grow. She said there’s no reason the effectiveness of vaccines seen among the elderly won’t translate to younger populations, but Canada just isn’t at that point in its effort yet.
Six million doses have been delivered to the provinces and territories so far, according to a federal tally.
Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand defended Canada’s vaccine rollout later Thursday, pointing out that yesterday alone more than 190,000 Canadians received a vaccine dose.
She pointed to significant deliveries from Pfizer and Moderna due in the next few weeks, as well as a shipment of 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca from the U.S. government coming to Canada on Tuesday by truck.
She was unable to provide any further clarity on AstraZeneca deliveries or any sense of a schedule from Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot drug.
“There’s always volatility in global supply chains,” she said during a virtual press conference. “Despite that, vaccines are still arriving in Canada this week.”
Meanwhile, Canada’s overall infection rate since the pandemic began one year ago is nearing the one-million mark. To date, the virus has killed 22,700 people across the country.
— with files from The Canadian Press