The COVID Variants

February 16, 2021 Updated: March 6, 2021

COVID-19 variant cases have already been found in all provinces, causing outbreaks in long-term care homes and derailing election plans in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Genetic mutations often occur in viruses, and SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is no exception. When the changes are significant, the new mutated form is called a variant.

A variant would be of concern if it impacts the spread or severity of the disease, as well as if it has a different response to tests or vaccines and treatments, according to Health Canada.

So far all variants of concern that have spread globally have also been found in Canada. Here’s a look at these variants.

The UK Variant

The UK variant, also known as B.1.1.7, was first detected in late September in the UK, and spread to thousands of people in the UK by year-end. Canada’s first cases of this variant were found in Ontario on Dec. 26. 2020. As of Feb. 15, 2021, Canada has reported 522 cases linked to the  B.1.1.7 variant, with most cases found in Ontario and Alberta.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this variant is about 50 percent more contagious.  The CDC also says  it could lead to a higher risk of death than other variants of the virus, but more studies are needed.  Public Health England said on Feb. 12 that there is no evidence the variant is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality, but that more investigation is needed. British government scientists said in a report on Feb. 11 that it is “likely” that the variant is associated with an increased risk of hospitalization and death.

The South African Variant

The South African variant, or B.1.351, was first identified in October 2020 and first detected in Canada on Jan. 8, 2021. As of Feb. 15, 2021, Canada has reported 33 cases, occurring in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec, and Nova Scotia.

According to the CDC, it’s not yet determined if the variant is more contagious, but the WHO said in its Dec. 31 update that this variant has a higher viral load, which may suggest greater transmissibility, adding that further investigation is needed. According to the CDC, the Moderna vaccine may be less effective against this variant, but more research is needed. A study by Oxford University and South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine does not appear to offer protection against mild and moderate cases of the disease caused by this variant.

The Brazilian Variant

The Brazilian variant, or P.1, was first identified in December 2020. Canada’s first case of the variant was detected in Toronto on Feb. 7, 2021. It’s Canada’s only case of this variant as of Feb. 15.

This variant is also believed to be more transmissible than the original coronavirus, but research is ongoing. While evidence suggests that some of the mutations in this variant may affect vaccine efficacy, more studies are still required, CDC says.

The Nigerian Variant

The Nigerian variant, or B.1.525, was first detected in Nigeria last December and has since been found in a dozen other countries, including the United States and UK. B.C. announced on Feb. 12 identification of what would be the first case of this variant in Canada if confirmed, in a person who had just returned from a trip to Nigeria. Research is ongoing to find out more about this variant, including its transmissibility and severity.