Rising cases of the B.1.617.2 variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, first identified in India, have U.K. authorities urging caution, even as they reopen pubs and allow gatherings across the country.
There’s reason to worry about this variant in Canada, experts say, though they add that so far, it hasn’t been proven to get past our vaccines.
Britain reported its highest daily total of new coronavirus infections in a month, while cases of the variant of concern first found in India continue to climb, official statistics showed on Thursday.
According to data from Public Health England, more than 2,000 new cases of the B.1.617.2 variant were reported in a single week, representing a 161 per cent increase in cases of this variant.
However, the overall incidence of infections in Britain is still low, while the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 fell to its lowest level since September on Thursday.
Earlier in May, the World Health Organization designated the B.1.617 variant a “global concern.” Health Canada followed suit, also upgrading it to a variant of concern after having first listed it as a variant of interest.
This form of the virus has a few properties that make it concerning, according to Andrew McArthur, an associate professor at McMaster University, and a leader of one of Canada’s genomic surveillance labs for SARS-CoV-2.
“What we know for the B.1.617 that originated in India is that it is at least as transmissible as the B.1.1.7 that originated in the U.K., if not more,” he said. B.1.1.7 remains the dominant variant of concern in the U.K., according to Public Health England data.
So far though, there is “no data yet that it is evading vaccines or will cause a challenge to the vaccination,” McArthur said. Similarly, there is not yet any data showing that it causes more severe illness than other variants, he said.
The CEO of BioNTech, which is co-producing a vaccine with Pfizer, said Thursday that their vaccine should be up to 75 per cent effective against the variant first identified in India.
And while cases have been reported in Canada, the federal government has tried to keep more from entering the country by issuing a travel ban from India and Pakistan last month, which was extended Friday.
“Direct commercial and private passenger flights from India and Pakistan will continue to be denied permission to arrive in Canada,” Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said during a press conference.
“This is not the right time to loosen any measures right now.”
Stephen Hoption Cann, a clinical professor and epidemiologist with UBC’s School of Public and Population Health, said that travel restrictions remain key.
“The travel measures are still quite important because even though we know the cases are here and they can be transmitted locally, you don’t want to have a huge wave of cases coming in that overwhelms the health system,” he said.
McArthur expects new variants to pop up while most of the world remains vulnerable to COVID-19.
“What we have to keep an eagle eye out for is a variant that messes with the vaccination strategy. We’ve yet to see that globally,” he said.
“The risks are not over. And we have seven billion people to take care of. And until we get mass vaccination everywhere, with open borders and travel and the evolution of viruses, there’s new risk.”
This means that we still need to take precautions in Canada, Hoption Cann said.
“A person just can’t down their caution, even if they’ve been vaccinated,” he said. “You can still pick up the infection and maybe it only develops in a mild infection in yourself, but you can still spread it to another person. So you want to be cautious and not take those risks.”
– With files from Reuters