Health officials in Canada monitoring for variant of virus identified in the U.K.

WINNIPEG — A genetic variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 identified in the United Kingdom is being closely monitored by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Experts say there’s still a lot to learn about this variant. The early data so far suggests it appears to be more transmissible but there’s no evidence it causes more severe illness than other strains of the virus.

There’s also no evidence the mutations have any impact on antibody response or vaccine efficacy, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. It says a genetic variation of viruses such as the one that causes COVID-19 is to be expected, something that’s previously been observed in other parts of the world this year.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s acting deputy chief public health officer, said work is underway to look further at the strain identified in the U.K. and determine if it’s arrived in Canada.

“The new strain isn’t actually a new strain. It has been floating around the U.K. since September,” Atwal said during Monday’s regularly-scheduled COVID-19 briefing. “What’s happening right now is there’s a lot more attention being paid to it because that strain seems to be multiplying or causing more infections than the original strain that was in the U.K.”

“From a Manitoba perspective, we haven’t seen that strain in Manitoba at this point. We are going to do some further work in relation to that as well.”

The federal government announced Sunday it’s restricting travel from the U.K. for 72 hours, due to the high number of cases of the variant in some areas and to give researchers time to learn more about it.

Jason Kindrachuk, a University of Manitoba virologist and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses, said while the variant appears to be more transmissible the mutations have not given the virus “superpowers.”

“I think we have to take this with a bit of a grain of salt,” said Kindrachuk. “All the things that we’ve been doing up until now, all the masking and the distancing and the hygiene, all the stuff we’re so tired of hearing about, that still applies. Those things can still block the transmission of this virus.”

Kindrachuk said there will be an increase in the sequencing of the genome of viruses that have shown up in Canada to help determine if the variant identified in the U.K. has arrived here.

“What that really entails is going back either retrospectively or prospectively as samples are acquired in patients that have been confirmed to be COVID-19 positive,” Kindrachuk said.

“To look to see what are the genome sequences that are there, do they match the currently circulating strain that we’ve seen across North America pretty much from spring on, or are we seeing signs that this new virus or this new variant has made an incursion in Canada.” 

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