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Why Canada must pay attention to quickly evolving B.1.617 variant

Last Updated May 28, 2021 at 3:09 pm EDT

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford penned an open letter to various doctors, scientists, and educators regarding the potential next step of reopening schools in the province, he asked seven questions; two of which centered on the emerging B.1.617 variant, first discovered in India.

“There are a growing number of cases in Ontario of the variant first identified in India (B.1.617). Does this mutation pose an increased risk to students and education workers?”

“Other countries are warning mutations including the B.1.617 variant are putting children at much greater risk and is shutting schools down. Is this concern not shared by medical experts in Ontario?”

Ford has been praised by some health experts that say the letter demonstrates the Premier’s willingness to listen to science, which hasn’t always been the case, before making decisions.

With promising new federal COVID-19 projections released today, it remains to be seen if kids will be back in class before July. After several months of online learning, it’s understandable why some students and parents would want to resume in-person education.

At the same time, logic seems to point to ramping up vaccinations – including more students and teachers – and starting fresh in September.

But Ford’s curiosity and concern over the B.1.617 variant is telling for many reasons. Though the B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the UK, remains the most widespread, the circumstances in India remain catastrophic.

A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that B.1.617 had shown increased transmissibility, while disease severity and risk of infection were still under investigation.

According to an expert group advising the government last week, scientists said “it is a real possibility that (the variant first seen in India) is as much as 50 percent more transmissible” than the variant first reported in Britain — whose explosive spread led to the country’s longest lockdown in January.

While the number of new cases and deaths continue to decrease globally in large part due to vaccines, it’s still unclear how effective they will be against the mutation from India, which is split up into three lineages (B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3).

The first strain of the virus has been reported in 41 territories, the second in 54 and the third in six: Britain, Canada, Germany, India, Russia and the United States.

Together, WHO says lineages of the B.1.617 variant were officially recorded in 53 territories and unofficially in another seven.

This is why it’s worth looking into the current situation in the UK, where cases of the variant first identified in India have more than doubled in England within one week. Hospitalizations were also rising in some areas.

The UK, it should be noted, has begun to preemptively lift lockdown restrictions with Prime Minister Boris Johnson going on record to say all measures are expected to be lifted by June 21.

But government figures showed that another 4,182 new confirmed cases were reported across the UK today; the highest daily figure since April 1, leading Johnson to announce the country might have to wait a little longer before opening up.

The cases bring the total number of confirmed infections reported over the past seven days to 20,765, a 24 percent increase from the previous week.

The rise prompted scientists to say the UK is now in the midst of a third wave of the pandemic.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the variant identified in India is believed to be responsible for up to 75 percent of new cases in the UK and more transmissible than the previously dominant strain of the virus.

“As we set out our roadmap we always expected cases to rise – we must remain vigilant,” he said last week at his daily briefing.

We see familiar words there, such as “roadmap” and “vigilant”. As Ontario and other provinces across the country slowly reopen to get life back to normal, that’s significant.

But vigilance is key.

From May 12 to May 19, Public Health Ontario said the number of known positive cases of the B.1.617 variant increased from 45 to 260. As we enter the new week, officials say new data won’t be released for some time.

On May 13, Public Health Ontario announced they were working on developing a method to regularly report B.1.617 results, which wouldn’t be live for another few weeks. As of Friday, no data has been made public.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams announced on Thursday that labs have detected 62 examples of B.1.617, upping the total to 322.

Williams said it’s difficult to screen for B.1.617 using a Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

“We’re not able to do that so far. We’ll continue to see if there is any more rapid screening process that is available.”

The growth of the B.1.617 variant is worrisome in comparison to others that have since been detected in the province.

The May 12-19 increase of well over 500 percent for B.1.617 far exceeds the one of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was roughly 13 percent.

Ontario’s data shows that 97.8 percent of VOC cases to date have been the strain first discovered in the UK. That is without an updated look at the B.1.617 strain.

There is hope, however.

Canada’s flight restrictions from India are a prudent health measure and are likely to be extended. Vaccines, as we have seen thus far, are integral.

At a press briefing in early May, Marco Cavaleri, head of vaccines at the European Medicines Agency, said the data appeared “rather reassuring” that vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna would protect against the variant first seen in India.

He said the agency was still gathering more information on the effectiveness of the shots made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson and was “pretty confident” those vaccines too would afford people enough protection from the variant.

In the areas of the UK worst hit by the variant, Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock said most people hospitalized had “chosen not to have the jab.”

Ford, it would seem, is asking the right questions. Variants of concern and their ability to spread means that Canadian health experts and the country’s leaders have to be on guard, even with optimistic talk that life will return to normal by September.

As we have seen in the past, reopening too quickly can be dangerous and will set us back. Vaccinations and the number of doses being administered daily is, and will likely continue to be, a real difference-maker.

But until more data is released on the efficacy of vaccines against the B.1.617 strain originating from India, it’s best to tread cautiously and not let what’s gone on in the UK happen in Canada.

With files from the Associated Press, BBC

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