Does it spread more easily? Make people sicker? Mean that treatments and vaccines won’t work? Questions are multiplying as fast as new strains of the coronavirus, especially the one now moving through England. Scientists say there is reason for concern but that the new strains should not cause alarm.
“There’s zero evidence that there’s any increase in severity” of COVID-19 from the latest strain, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan said Monday.
“We don’t want to overreact,” the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN.
Worry has been growing since Saturday, when Britain’s prime minister said a new strain, or variant, of the coronavirus seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. Dozens of countries barred flights from the U.K., and southern England was placed under strict lockdown measures.
Here are some questions and answers on what’s known about the virus so far.
Q: WHERE DID THIS NEW STRAIN COME FROM?
A: New variants have been seen almost since the virus was first detected in China nearly a year ago. Viruses often mutate, or develop small changes, as they reproduce and move through a population — something “that’s natural and expected,” WHO said in a statement Monday.
“Most of the mutations are trivial. It’s the change of one or two letters in the genetic alphabet that doesn’t make much difference in the ability to cause disease,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who directs a global health program at Boston College.
A more concerning situation is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system, or if it acquires a lot of changes that make it very different from previous versions.
Q: HOW DOES ONE STRAIN BECOME DOMINANT?
A: That can happen if one strain is a “founder” strain — the first one to take hold and start spreading in an area, or because “super spreader” events helped it become established.
It also can happen if a mutation gives a new variant an advantage, such as helping it spread more easily than other strains that are circulating, as may be the case in Britain.
“It’s more contagious than the original strain,” Landrigan said. “The reason it’s becoming the dominant strain in England is because it out-competes the other strains and moves faster and infects more people, so it wins the race.”
Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the U.S. government’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign, said scientists are still working to confirm whether the strain in England spreads more easily. He said it’s also possible that “seeding” of hidden cases “happened in the shadows” before scientists started looking for it.
The strain was first detected in September, WHO officials said.
Q: WHAT’S WORRISOME ABOUT IT?
A: It has many mutations — nearly two dozen — and eight are on the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. The spike is what vaccines and antibody drugs target.
Dr. Ravi Gupta, a virus expert at the University of Cambridge in England, said modeling studies suggest it may be up to two times more infectious than the strain that’s been most common in England so far. He and other researchers posted a report of it on a website scientists use to quickly share developments but it has not been formally reviewed or published in a journal.
Q: DOES IT MAKE PEOPLE SICKER OR MORE LIKELY TO DIE?
A: “There’s no indication that either of those is true, but clearly those are two issues we’ve got to watch,” Landrigan said. As more patients get infected with the new strain, “they’ll know fairly soon if the new strain makes people sicker.”
A WHO outbreak expert, Maria Van Kerkhove, said Monday that “the information that we have so far is that there isn’t a change” in the kind of illness or its severity from the new strain.
Q: WHAT DO THE MUTATIONS MEAN FOR TREATMENTS?
A: A couple of cases in England raise concern that the mutations in some of the emerging new strains could hurt the potency of drugs that supply antibodies to block the virus from infecting cells.
“The studies on antibody response are currently under way. We expect results in coming days and weeks,” Van Kerkhove said.
One drugmaker, Eli Lilly, said that tests in its lab using strains that contain the most concerning mutation suggest that its drug remains fully active.
Q: WHAT ABOUT VACCINES?
A: Slaoui said the presumption is that current vaccines would still be effective against the variant, but that scientists are working to confirm that.
“My expectation is, this will not be a problem,” he said.
United Kingdom officials have said “they don’t believe there is impact on the vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said.
Vaccines induce broad immune system responses besides just prompting the immune system to make antibodies to the virus, so they are expected to still work, several scientists said.
Q: CAN TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS DO ANY GOOD?
A: Landrigan thinks they can.
“If the new strain is indeed more contagious than the original strain, then it’s very, very sensible to restrict travel,” he said. “It will slow things down. Any time you can break the chain of transmission you can slow the virus down.”
CNN quoted Fauci as saying that he was not criticizing other countries for suspending travel to England but that he would not advise the United States to take such a step.
The presence or extent of the new strain in the United States is unknown at this time.
Q: WHAT CAN I DO TO REDUCE MY RISK?
A: Follow the advice to wear a mask, wash your hands often, maintain social distance and avoid crowds, public health experts say.
“The bottom line is we need to suppress transmission” of all virus strains that can cause COVID-19, said the WHO’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“The more we allow it to spread, the more mutations will happen.”
Associated Press writers Christina Larson in Washington and Candice Choi in New York contributed to this report.
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.
Marilynn Marchione, The Associated Press
Health officials in Ontario investigating whether second COVID-19 care home outbreak is linked to U.K. variant – The Globe and Mail
The U.K. variant of COVID-19 behind a devastating outbreak at a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., is also being investigated as the possible source of infections at a second facility in the region.
The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit announced on Sunday that it has received another laboratory-confirmed case for the highly contagious variant first detected in the United Kingdom. This individual was in close contact with a person who is part of a COVID-19 outbreak at Bradford Valley Care Community, Charles Gardner, Simcoe Muskoka’s medical officer of health, told reporters.
“So just to be clear, we only have the one laboratory confirmation today with regards to this situation,” Dr. Gardner said, adding that the health unit is pursuing further testing to determine whether anyone who lives or works at the Bradford Valley long-term care home has the variant known as UK B 1.1.7.
A total of six residents and three staff members at Bradford Valley have tested positive for COVID-19.
The individual who has tested positive for the U.K. variant is also connected to a retail outlet that provides curbside service where two positive cases of the virus have been confirmed. “We are investigating that as another point of contact in the community,” Dr. Gardner said.
The outbreak of the virus at the Bradford long-term care home began on Jan. 14 and is well under control at this time, he said in a statement.
However, he added, “the possibility of this being due to the U.K. variant needs to be assessed and managed, given its increased transmissibility.”
The 230-bed home is owned by Sienna Senior Living, one of Canada’s largest operators of for-profit long-term care homes.
“We are being extremely vigilant in our monitoring for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and are taking all of the necessary steps to protect the safety of our residents and team members,” Sienna’s chief medical officer Andrea Moser said in the statement.
The latest development follows the announcement on Saturday that a genome sequencing test identified the U.K. variant in six COVID-19 samples taken from Roberta Place, a long-term care home in Barrie where a devastating outbreak has infected all but two residents and killed 40 as of Sunday. An essential caregiver has also died of COVID-19 and 86 staff have tested positive.
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Health unit probing second possible UK variant outbreak in region – OrilliaMatters
SIMCOE MUSKOKA DISTRICT HEALTH UNIT
The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) was informed late yesterday by Public Health Ontario Laboratory of an additional individual with the United Kingdom (UK) variant of COVID-19 within the region.
This individual had close contact with a person who is also part of a COVID-19 outbreak at Bradford Valley Care Community, a long-term care home (LTCH) in Bradford West Gwillimbury. As such, SMDHU is currently investigating if this outbreak is also due to the UK variant of COVID-19.
“Given this situation, we are working together in partnership with the residence to implement additional measures to contain the spread while pursuing the necessary tests to determine if it is the UK variant of COVID-19 that is the cause of this outbreak,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, SMDHU’s Medical Officer of Health.
SMDHU is investigating all other connections to the individual who tested positive for the UK variant, including a curbside-only retail setting.
The COVID-19 outbreak was declared at Bradford Valley Care Community on Jan. 14. As of Jan. 23, four residents out of 230, and three staff out of 260, have tested positive for COVID-19; further testing will be done to determine if this is the UK variant. While the outbreak is well under control at this time with a relatively low case count, the possibility of this being due to the UK variant needs to be assessed and managed, given its increased transmissibility.
“We are being extremely vigilant in our monitoring for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and are taking all of the necessary steps to protect the safety of our residents and team members, said Dr. Andrea Moser, Sienna Senior Living’s Chief Medical Officer. “We are working proactively with Public Health and community partners as fighting the virus will require everyone’s expertise and teamwork.”
The intensified case and contact measures being taken include extending the isolation duration for cases and close contacts, more readily identifying close contacts, and quarantining all household contacts of confirmed or probable cases as quickly as possible.
On Jan. 15, most of the residents in Bradford Valley Care Community were provided with vaccination by SMDHU staff as a protective measure against COVID-19. As of Jan. 16, the residents of all the LTCHs in Simcoe Muskoka have been offered their first dose of immunization against COVID-19. Although many of the staff have received their first vaccination, steps are being taken to ensure that all of them will have access to the vaccine at this time.
“Approximately 60 per cent of team members and 96 per cent of residents at Bradford Valley have received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine,” said Dr. Moser. “We appreciate all the efforts from our partners in the community with the rollout of the vaccine and will continue working closely with them as additional doses are available for deployment.”
People are reminded to continue to strictly follow public health measures to reduce and prevent transmission of the virus: wear a mask, physically distance from those outside your household, wash your hands frequently, leave your home only for essential reasons (in keeping with the provincial Stay at Home Order), and if you have symptoms self-isolate at home and get tested for COVID-19.”
For more information, visit SMDHU’s COVID-19 Vaccine and Immunization web page or call Health Connection to speak with a public health professional weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 705-721-7520 (1-877-721-7520). More information about the vaccine and immunization can also be found at ontario.ca.
'Do not make plans,' warns Henry in plea to stem Family Day travel – Richmond News
“We won’t be at a place where we can travel.”
That was Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s message Friday, Jan. 22, responding to questions over whether the province’s plan to vaccinate 4.3 million people by October would open up non-essential travel to British Columbians over the next several months.
“We know there are a lot of celebratory events coming up like Chinese New Year. We need those to remain low-key, virtual events this year,” she said.
Until at least the summer, Henry said travel should remain essential with a focus on staying local and “looking at experiencing what we have in B.C. for people in B.C.”
But on Thursday, Premier John Horgan rejected calls for a ban on interprovincial travel, after seeking a legal review on a potential border lockdown to stem the transmission of COVID-19.
Finding that much of the current interprovincial travel is work-related, and therefore essential, it cannot be restricted, Horgan stated in a written statement.
Current public health orders require masks in public indoor spaces and limit social gatherings to a single household or “core bubble” until at least Feb. 5 at midnight. They do not, however, restrict movement across the province.
“Public health officials tell us what is most important is for everyone to obey health orders, wherever they are, rather than imposing mobility rules,” he said. “Therefore, we will not be imposing travel restrictions at this time.”
On Friday, Horgan said his government would “be guided by the science.”
Pointing to his own affinity for attending lacrosse games as well as B.C.’s 150th anniversary since Confederation this summer, Horgan said, “We’re not making plans right now, and British Columbians shouldn’t be making plans right now.”
“As we get more information, as the vaccination plan rolls out and we see the impact on case counts… we’ll be in a better position to make those decisions.”
Horgan also said Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Herman is working on a plan to open up campgrounds across the province for the summer season.
As Henry put it: “Once we get to the summer, we’re probably going to be in a different position. Whether we’ll have access to international travel? That is not as sure.”
She added: “We know that there are billions of people who do not have access to vaccinations and that this virus is still creating great risks in many communities around the world.”
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