02/11/2021 14:37 EST | Updated 02/12/2021 11:32 EST

COVID-19 Variants In Canada: How Should It Change Your Pandemic Habits?

Are the variants more dangerous? And what does this mean for the vaccine?

The COVID-19 variants are here. 

Nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold of the world, many countries are still grappling with undulating lockdowns and case rates as vaccines are rushed into development. And while vaccines are promising — Canada aims to vaccinate everyone who wants the shot by the end of 2021 — a new wrench has been thrown into the mix in the form of COVID-19 variants.

These mutations of the original virus can be more transmittable and may even reinfect people or be vaccine resistant. They’ve caused widespread outbreaks in countries like the United Kingdom and South Africa. Could Canada be next? 

“While we have seen some progress, the risk remains high,” Ontario Deputy Premier Christine Elliott said Monday. “COVID-19 variants are now spreading in Ontario and remain a significant threat to controlling the pandemic in all areas of the province, including those currently with low transmission.”

Here’s what you need to know. 

What’s the deal with these variants?

As of early February, health officials have identified four “variants of concern” of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Viruses like the novel coronavirus or seasonal influenza go through mutations and variations all the time. That’s why we need a new flu shot every year. Some mutations actually die out, because they make it less transmissible. Some do nothing. 

A man wearing a protective mask walks into the sunlight in Toronto on Feb. 11, 2021.

Some are classified variants of concern because they have the potential to be more transmissible, more deadly or resistant to vaccines. 

There was the U.K. variant identified in southern England. Then there was the South African variant and the Brazil variant. Now this week, officials have identified a fourth variant of concern, this time in west England.

Why are they concerning for Canadians?

If the variants take hold here and become the dominant strain, the number of positive cases could increase and overwhelm our health-care system. In December, the emergence of the U.K. variant prompted a wave of new infections there. Experts worry if the more transmissible variants catch hold in Canada, we could be in a lot of trouble. 

Look to the Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., where nearly every resident has caught the U.K. variant and dozens of residents have died.

Three of the variants of concern have been identified in Canada — the U.K. and South African strains have been found in seven provinces. Ontario recently logged the country’s first case of the Brazil variant. 

Are the variants more contagious than the “normal” coronavirus?

Some of them are, yes.

The U.K. New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group has concluded with “moderate confidence” that the original U.K. variant known as B.1.1.7 is substantially more infectious than other variants.

It has a large number of mutations, and many of those involve the virus’ spike protein — A.K.A. the part of the virus that helps it invade human cells. This means it’s even more efficient at entering our cells. The South African variant also has spike protein mutations, suggesting it is also more transmissible. 

Are the variants more deadly than the “normal” coronavirus? 

In short: maybe.

Because the variants are still so new, more research is needed into their impacts and deadliness. However, the U.K. New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group has said there is a “realistic possibility” the U.K. variant is more deadly. 

No current research shows that the South African variant is more deadly, though two concerning mutations have been flagged that could reduce how well our antibodies bind to and fight the virus — and those antibodies are why vaccines work. 

Can I get a variant if I already had COVID-19?

While more research is needed, there is evidence that the Brazilian variant has led to a wave of reinfections in the city of Manaus. That city supposedly reached herd immunity back in October, which suggests the Brazilian variant could possibly reinfect people who’ve had the original strain of COVID-19.

Do the COVID-19 vaccines work on the variants?

So far there’s no evidence to suggest that either the U.K. and Brazilian variants are resistant to approved or pending vaccines against COVID-19.

Where things get tricky is with the South African variant. Recent data from both Novavax and Johnson & Johnson — who are producing COVID-19 vaccines — suggest their products may not work as well against the South African variant. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine group also released data over the weekend suggesting its vaccine might be limited in its effectiveness against the South African variant.

A lab technician works on blood samples taken from people taking part in a Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine test at the Ndlovu clinic's lab in Groblersdal, South Africa on Feb. 11, 2021. 

But, once again, more research is needed. Vaccine manufacturers can also tweak and adjust their vaccines to work against variants as they emerge. 

Does getting tested for COVID-19 mean I’m also tested for variants?

Beyond the issues discussed above, the COVID-19 you get from the original novel coronavirus is pretty much the same as the COVID-19 you get from variants. That means existing COVID-19 tests will detect COVID-19 if it’s caused by a variant.

But not every COVID-19 test will tell you which variant you have. In Canada, targeted testing and sequencing is being done to confirm cases of variants and track their spread, particularly in people who are close contacts of confirmed variant cases. 

Should I wear a better mask?

Variants or not, we should all probably be wearing better masks. A study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released Wednesday suggested that double-masking, when done properly, can be upwards of 97 per cent more effective in preventing the spread of the virus. 

So wear a dang mask!

Should I see fewer people? 

Across most of Canada you probably shouldn’t be seeing people anyways. But if there was ever a time to double-down on your pandemic best practices, now is it. More transmissible variants mean they’ll spread a lot faster in social interactions. 

Should I travel less?

Once again, now is not the time to travel. New border restrictions on international flights, quarantine rules and testing requirements were all put in place in recent weeks in response to these variants.