Recently, stories in American news outlets about the R.1 variant have emerged, questioning its mutation and the potential threat it poses. Specifically, the strain is getting attention in California, but the Los Angeles Times has reported the mutation has “died out already.”
The R.1 variant was concerning because it has a few mutations that might avoid anti-body responses, said Andy Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States.
“At the time, though, that was just before Alpha in the U.S. made its first trip through the country, followed by Delta, and once Alpha and Delta came through, R.1 essentially disappeared from most people’s radar screens,” he told Global News.
“So that sort of told us that Alpha and Delta were probably better viruses at spreading than R.1 was, even though R.1 had some mutations that would make it concerning to us.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) first reported R.1 was circulating in multiple countries in January, but it never made variant of interest classification.
Neither did it make a significant impact in Canada, a spokesperson for Health Canada told Global News.
Today, R.1 isn’t active in Canada, though the country has logged 48 cases of the mutation to date. Most of those occurred in March and April, with the last case reported on April 20, said Anna Maddison.
At present, the variants of concern in Canada include Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta – the latter of which is driving Canada’s fourth wave among the unvaccinated.
Delta, which is the most dominant COVID-19 strain in the world at the moment, is so strong for two reasons, Pekosz said.
First, it’s able to enter human cells and replicate more efficiently, and second, it spreads more easily.
“Therefore, you get this faster movement of this virus through the population than other variants that have been around prior to its emergence,” he said.
Delta continues to outpace other COVID-19 variants, including WHO variants of interest Lambda and Mu.
As a result, Pekosz feels R.1 isn’t posing “any kind of imminent threat,” though he won’t fully dismiss it.
“As a virologist, I always pay attention to these variants and particularly pay attention to any mutations that might pick up along the way. But right now, everything in the U.S. and Canada is about Delta, and we’re most worried about what Delta is going to do,” he said.
“Is Delta going to change? Is Delta going to continue to evolve? Because it seems to outcompete all the other variants.”
In its last weekly variant breakdown published Sept. 24, Health Canada indicated that 98.7 per cent of all new COVID-19 infections were the Delta variant. The previously dominant strain in Canada, Alpha, only made up 1.1 per cent of new cases.
Canada’s provinces have all managed the fourth wave differently. In the national spotlight at the moment are Alberta and Saskatchewan, where COVID-19 surges there have led to severe health-care challenges.
Over the summer, both provinces loosened protective measures designed to limit virus spread, a move the Canadian Medical Association recently blamed as the need for “extraordinary measures” now to save the provinces’ “crumbling health-care systems.”
Most cases are among the unvaccinated, and Alberta and Saskatchewan are behind the rest of Canada when it comes to full inoculation rates.
As of Thursday, 74 per cent of eligible Alberta and Saskatchewan residents are fully vaccinated.
Pekosz said viruses always mutate, regardless if you’re vaccinated or not. But if you’re unvaccinated, the virus will replicate at a faster level, resulting in more mutations.
“So by letting the virus replicate, we’re giving the virus opportunities to evolve and become something different that might eventually be able to evade the vaccine-induced immunity,” he said.
“So getting vaccines into the arms of the unvaccinated has to really be the priority because that’s how we’re going to get this pandemic under control, and slow down the rate of variants emerging.”
Pekosz added governments must prioritize vaccine sharing with other nations, because variants have a better opportunity of emerging in populations where vaccination rates are low.
“We have to think about this as a global threat, and any place where the virus is allowed to replicate unfettered is going to result in more variants,” he said.
“So we have to take a global approach and make sure that we’re providing everybody with the means to limit virus spread, because otherwise all of us could be at potential risk of a new variant emerging.”
Canada and the United States have been donating vaccines, but both countries are also implementing booster programs – a move the WHO has asked rich nations to halt in order to better vaccinate the world.
In the U.S., booster shots are being given to Americans aged 65 and older, adults with underlying medical conditions and adults in high-risk settings, like a workplace or congregate living.
Earlier this week, Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended boosters for long-term care home residents and elders living in other congregate settings. NACI is recommending seniors in these settings receive boosters six months after they completed immunization.
Those decisions make sense, because boosters are designed to protect the vulnerable, Pekosz said.
“The vaccines are working for the vast majority of people in this country and in Canada, and most people shouldn’t be concerned about getting a booster unless they’re in one of those high risk groups,” he said.
“We got to keep our focus on vaccinating the unvaccinated because that’s really going to make the biggest difference.”