Reports from Britain and South Africa of new coronavirus strains that seem to spread more easily are causing alarm, but virus experts say it’s unclear if that’s the case or whether they pose any concern for vaccines or cause more severe disease.
Viruses naturally evolve as they move through the population, some more than others. It’s one reason we need a fresh flu shot each year.
New variants, or strains, of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been seen almost since it was first detected in China nearly a year ago.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new restrictions because of the new strain, and several European Union countries banned or limited some flights from the U.K. to try to limit any spread.
Here’s what is known about the situation.
WHAT’S CONCERNING ABOUT THE RECENT STRAIN FOUND IN ENGLAND?
Health experts in the U.K. and U.S. said the strain seems to infect more easily than others, but there is no evidence yet it is more deadly.
Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said that the strain “moves fast and is becoming the dominant variant,” causing over 60% of infections in London by December.
The strain is also concerning because it has so many mutations — nearly two dozen — and some are on the spiky protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. That spike is what current vaccines target.
“I’m worried about this, for sure,” but it’s too soon to know how important it ultimately will prove to be, said Dr. Ravi Gupta, who studies viruses at the University of Cambridge in England. He and other researchers posted a report of it on a website scientists use to quickly share developments, but the paper has not been formally reviewed or published in a journal.
HOW DO THESE NEW STRAINS OCCUR?
Viruses often acquire small changes of a letter or two in their genetic alphabet just through normal evolution. A slightly modified strain can become the most common one in a country or region just because that’s the strain that first took hold there or because “super spreader” events helped it become entrenched.
A bigger worry is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system.
“Emerging evidence” suggests that may be starting to happen with the new coronavirus, Trevor Bedford, a biologist and genetics expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, wrote on Twitter. “We’ve now seen the emergence and spread of several variants” that suggest this, and some show resistance to antibody treatments, he noted.
WHAT OTHER STRAINS HAVE EMERGED?
In April, researchers in Sweden found a virus with two genetic changes that seemed to make it roughly two times more infectious, Gupta said. About 6,000 cases worldwide have been reported, mostly in Denmark and England, he said.
Several variations of that strain now have turned up. Some were reported in people who got them from mink farms in Denmark. A new South African strain has the two changes seen before, plus some others.
The one in the U.K. has the two changes and more, including eight to the spike protein, Gupta said. It’s called a “variant under investigation” because its significance is not yet known.
The strain was identified in southeastern England in September and has been circulating in the area ever since, a World Health Organization official told the BBC on Sunday.
WILL PEOPLE WHO HAD COVID-19 FROM AN OLD STRAIN BE ABLE TO GET THE NEW ONE? WILL IT UNDERMINE VACCINES?
Probably not, former U.S. Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“Unlikely,” Gupta agreed.
President-elect Joe Biden’s surgeon general nominee, Vivek Murthy, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that there’s “no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus as well.”
Vaccines produce wide-ranging responses by the immune system beyond just those to the spike protein, several experts noted.
The possibility that new strains will be resistant to existing vaccines are low, but not “inexistent,” Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the U.S. government’s vaccine distribution effort, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Up to now, I don’t think there has been a single variant that would be resistant,” he said. “This particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity.”
“I’m not concerned” because a lot of changes in the genetic code would probably be needed to undermine a vaccine, not just one or two mutations, Bedford wrote on Twitter. But vaccines may need fine-tuned over time as changes accumulate, and changes should be more closely monitored, he wrote.
Murthy said the new strain doesn’t change the public health advice to wear masks, wash hands and maintain social distance.
Associated Press writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, and Sylvia Hui in London contributed reporting.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
News from © The Associated Press, 2020
Pfizer vaccine delay: Is Canada being left behind? – Newstalk 1010 (iHeartRadio)
OTTAWA — At least three provinces are now temporarily delaying or pausing COVID-19 vaccination programs amid fallout from Pfizer’s decision to reduce Canada’s vaccine deliveries over the next month.
More than half a million Canadians have been vaccinated against COVID-19 thus far, and more than 822,000 doses of the two approved vaccines have been delivered from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
But all provinces are being forced to revisit their vaccination programs after Pfizer suddenly told Canada on Friday morning it would be cutting the doses delivered in half over the next four weeks, while it upgrades its factory in Belgium. Pfizer was to ship 735,150 doses to Canada between Jan. 18 and Feb. 14.
Canada’s deliveries after the partial pause will be bigger than previously expected so Pfizer can fulfil its contract to deliver four million doses by the end of March.
About 600,000 doses have been delivered from Pfizer so far.
The new delivery schedule has not yet been posted publicly, but provinces are preparing for the temporary downturn anyway.
Manitoba stopped taking appointments for first doses Friday but will honour appointments already made.
Ontario’s chief medical officer Dr. David Williams said Saturday his province would delay giving the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine to 42 days, instead of the recommended 21 days. The 28-day schedule for Moderna’s vaccine will remain intact, said Williams.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Monday his province has “quite simply run out of supply” of COVID-19 vaccines and is no longer taking appointments for people to get their first doses.
“I am deeply disappointed at the situation we are now facing,” said Kenney.
“Due to the unexpected supply disruption the federal government announced last week, Alberta will have no more vaccine doses available to administer as first doses by the end of today or early tomorrow.”
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said his province is considering whether to adjust the dosing schedule. B.C. had already changed the 21-day second-dose schedule to 35 days, but Dix said that may change again because of the delivery shortages.
Alberta hit a milestone on Sunday by delivering of the first doses of vaccine to all residents of long-term care facilities. Ontario still anticipates hitting its first target of inoculating 61,500 long-term care residents, staff and primary caregivers by Thursday.
Pfizer is trying to double its production of vaccine doses to two billion this year and is planning to temporarily curb production at its Belgian facility to make upgrades that will allow for that increase.
Pfizer Canada spokeswoman Christina Antoniou said the delivery delays will affect other countries besides Canada and the European Union but the company has not identified them.
“Multiple countries around the world, beyond Canada and the EU, will be impacted in the short term,” Antoniou said.
“Pfizer is working closely with all governments on allocation of doses. While the precise percentage allocation may fluctuate, we anticipate that it will balance out by the end of (the first quarter of) 2021.”
Europe has already seen its delivery delay period shortened from four weeks to just one. Pfizer told Europe Friday that delays to its dose deliveries would end Jan. 25, while Canada expects to be affected until mid-February.
European leaders were furious at the initial announcement that their deliveries would be smaller for several weeks. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called Pfizer’s CEO directly to discuss the issue late last week.
Pfizer later announced Europe’s deliveries would only be affected for this week.
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must explain why Canada’s delivery schedule is being affected for longer.
“It’s up to the prime minister to explain to Canadians why they won’t be able to get vaccinated for months, while European countries have minimal delays in receiving vaccines,” Rempel said.
“It’s up to him to explain why, based on Friday’s news about vaccine delivery delays, we might be looking at many more months of lockdown — with the lost jobs, time with families, and mental health challenges that accompany them. It’s up to him to find a better path forward.”
Trudeau said Friday the decision was “out of our hands” but that it would not affect Canada’s long-term goal to have every Canadian vaccinated by the end of September.
By the fall, Canada is to get a total 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Both use a similar technology to train the human immune system to recognize the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, and mount a defence against it.
Both vaccines showed they were more than 94 per cent effective at preventing serious illness after two doses.
Health Canada approved Pfizer’s vaccine Dec. 9 and Moderna’s on Dec. 23. It continue to review two more COVID-19 vaccines, from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, but neither is expected to complete the review process in Canada for at least several more weeks.
COVID death toll rises in the north – Prince George Citizen
The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of four more northern B.C. residents.
On Monday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control reported that the Northern Health region’s death toll from the pandemic had grown to 52 – up from 48 in Friday’s update.
“”There have been 31 new COVID-19 related deaths, for a total of 1,078 deaths in British Columbia,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a joint statement released on Monday afternoon. “We offer our condolences to everyone who has lost their loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
There were 166 new cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region since Friday’s update, according to the B.C. CDC data. The region’s number of active cases rose to 531, up from 497 on Friday.
The Northern Health’s case counts are moving the opposite direction of the province as a whole. On Monday, the province had 4,326 active cases of COVID-19, down from 4,604 on Friday and 5,232 a week ago.
Across B.C. there were 343 hospitalized with COVID-19, including 68 in critical care. Forty of those hospitalized were in the Northern Health region, and 16 of those people were in critical care.
B.C. had a total of 1,330 new cases of COVID-19 since the last update, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 61,447 – including 2,911 in the north.
A breakdown of COVID-19 cases by local health area released by the B.C. CDC reported there were 108 cases of COVID-19 in the Prince George area between Jan. 3 and Jan. 9.
A map showing cases by Health Service Delivery Area showed 132 cases between Jan. 8 and Jan. 14 in the Northern Interior area, which includes Prince George.
As of Monday, 87,346 British Columbians have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“With notice of a temporary reduction in Pfizer vaccine supply in Canada, we have adjusted our immunization program to match availability,” Henry and Dix said. “Our focus continues to be on immunizing all those in long-term care, as well as the people who care for the residents, and starting dose two at 35 days.”
As of this week, the B.C. CDC will add vaccination information to its COVID-19 dashboard information.
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“We have to remember that even though our COVID-19 immunization program is underway, the risks remain high. This is why we all need to continue using our layers of protection and follow the public health orders, to keep everyone without a vaccine as safe as possible,” Henry and Dix said. “The COVID-19 vaccines are incredibly effective, greater than what we see in the vaccines for many other illnesses. But right now, it is our individual efforts that have the biggest impact. Let’s show each other that we remain committed to doing our part to keep everyone safe, to protect our seniors and Elders who have not yet had the vaccine, our neighbours and loved ones.”
Could new virus variants derail COVID-19 vaccination efforts? Scientists hope not – CBC.ca
After the virus behind COVID-19 spent 2020 wreaking havoc around the globe, this year started with a bit more hope — vaccination efforts were ramping up, after all — and a tinge of fear.
Multiple new coronavirus variants have been discovered across several continents, from Europe to Africa to South America. Confirmed cases keep popping up in dozens of countries, Canada included.
Scientists are now racing to understand these sets of mutations, all while concerns are growing over their ability to infect people more easily or, in some cases, potentially evade the army of antibodies we create after being infected or vaccinated.
And since widespread transmission means this virus has ample opportunities to mutate again and again and again, these variants won’t be the last. They’re just the ones we know about.
“The more opportunity we give to the virus to replicate, to make more viruses, the more opportunity there is to see that variant of concern — one that won’t be mitigated by our vaccines that we’ve developed,” warned Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
After months of work to develop safe, effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the scientific community now faces a race against time to ward off that scenario.
There’s also a looming question: What happens if we don’t?
Variants could ‘very rapidly’ become prevalent
Kelvin, one of the many Canadian researchers involved in vaccine development, said preliminary data shows that the sets of mutations identified so far don’t yet seem to be an issue for current coronavirus vaccines.
That’s the good news. It’s the “yet” she finds troubling.
“We have to stay on top of this problem,” Kelvin said.
But while new variants might throw a wrench in efforts to suppress transmission by popping up like a game of global whack-a-mole, those ongoing mutations were actually expected, not surprising.
That’s because each virus has a singular goal of replicating itself. With tens of millions of people helping move the coronavirus back and forth between hosts, that means countless replications. Some of those contain random, insignificant mistakes. And when the mistakes prove beneficial to the virus, helping it produce more copies, those errors can become a new normal of sorts — a variant.
It’s just evolution at work, said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security in Washington, D.C., and incoming research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“What concerns me the most is that the epidemiological data that goes along with some of these variants suggests they could very rapidly become very prevalent — effectively out-competing the other variants in a given area — in a short period of time,” she said.
WATCH | How countries can control emerging coronavirus variants:
Could new variants decrease immune response?
Researchers speculate that may be what happened with B117. The variant was first discovered in the U.K. late last year and is now the country’s dominant strain of the coronavirus — with various officials suggesting it’s at least 50 per cent more transmissible. (Cases have been confirmed in several provinces in Canada as well, and testing is ongoing.)
In the short term, more transmission means more infections, hospitalizations and deaths, Rasmussen said, which offers an incentive for countries to slow case growth. Doing so would both save lives and cut off channels for the virus to spread and mutate.
“It’s also possible that variants may arise that decrease the effectiveness of our immune response to the virus,” said Matthew Miller, a member of the Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University and the McMaster Immunology Research Centre in Hamilton.
“But also, of course — and perhaps more worryingly — the immune responses elicited by the currently approved vaccines.”
WATCH | A new coronavirus variant spreads through Brazil:
For scientists in Brazil, there’s already legitimate cause for alarm.
“We have detected a new variant circulating in December in Manaus, Amazonas state, north Brazil, where very high attack rates have been estimated previously,” read the preliminary findings posted online by a research team led by Imperial College London virologist Nuno Faria.
The new lineage, dubbed P1, contains a “unique constellation” of mutations in the crucial spike protein, which helps the virus penetrate human cells, the report continues. The variant was detected in 42 per cent of samples collected during a stretch in December, but not in samples collected in the months before.
Those new cases also appeared even though an estimated three-quarters of people living in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon region, had already been infected.
Faria’s report stressed that could mean an increase in transmissibility — the same issue with B117 — or even an ability to reinfect people.
Vaccines ‘modifiable’ in face of new mutations
According to Rasmussen, antibodies seem to have a reduced capacity to neutralize this kind of virus variant based on the spike protein mutations. Echoing Kelvin and Miller’s concerns, she said that’s a key problem, “because if you acquire enough of those mutations, you may get to a point where you have a variant capable of evading vaccine-induced immunity completely.”
But again, it’s not all dire news. Just because antibodies are less effective doesn’t necessarily mean someone would have reduced immune protection, Rasmussen explained, since the body’s immune response is looking at the entire spike protein, not just certain areas that might have a set of mutations.
Miller also noted that while the spike protein tends to be most prone to changing in the face of immunological pressure, there are other vaccine candidates in development that are designed to elicit broader immune responses against a greater array of viral targets to stay one step ahead.
WATCH | Scientists still researching whether vaccine prevents COVID-19 transmission:
“Even in the worst-case scenario, that we see some of these variants spreading and we get a partial response, it’s probably going to mean that the health-care complications, the deaths, are still going to be greatly controlled by a mass vaccine campaign,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at McMaster University.
And, thankfully, research teams can also pivot, redeveloping existing coronavirus vaccines to target any variants that may prove capable of evading the ones already rolling out globally.
The novel mRNA vaccines, including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna options currently approved in Canada, are among those that can be more easily tweaked. Those vaccines provide instructions — messenger RNA — to cells, allowing them to make their own spike protein, which someone’s immune system can recognize and fight off in the future.
“That is their genius, that they’re completely and rapidly modifiable,” Chagla said. “The packaging is there, the delivery method is there, all you need to do is change the mRNA sequence.”
The sooner people get vaccinated, ‘the better’
But while the flexibility of vaccination development is reassuring for the long term, it doesn’t tackle the problem at hand: COVID-19 still has its grip on much of the world, the death toll keeps climbing and vaccination efforts remain a race against time as emerging variants keep throwing a wrench in efforts to curb transmission.
“The sooner that we can get a vaccine into people, the better,” Kelvin said.
To save lives and keep health-care systems from collapsing while vaccination programs scale up, she stressed that Canadians also need to ramp up the basic public health precautions that should now be routine.
Physical distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, staying away from crowds and enclosed spaces — it all matters, perhaps now more than ever, to slow transmission and give the virus fewer opportunities to spread and evolve.
That buys time for Canada to hit its tenuous goal for 2021: getting everyone vaccinated, without any variants getting in the way.
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