New COVID-19 strain dominant in UK infections not yet found in Canada: Tam

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Canada’s top doctor says a potentially more infectious strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 has yet to be detected in Canada, but federal officials are mobilizing their genome sequencing networks in an effort to catch it.

A particular line of the SARS-CoV-2 virus appears to dominate infections in the UK, with an epidemiologist suggesting mutations on the new strand could make it 70% more infectious. Experts say, however, that more data is needed before it can be verified and they expect current vaccines to still work on the new front.

Viruses are constantly changing and mutating, says director of public health Dr. Theresa Tam, and Canada has been sequenced on COVID viral samples for months in an attempt to track these types of alterations.

News of the revamped UK stream, which has already been found in other parts of the world, has made these efforts more important. And given the way COVID is spreading, Tam says she wouldn’t be surprised to see this new lineage lead to infections in multiple countries.

“It could become one of the more common strains,” Tam said at a press conference on Tuesday. “We know how this virus is transmitted in a hidden way, so it’s a possibility for sure.

“But by having a little time and settling in, we’ll be able to spot it if it appears in Canada. ”

Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, says genome sequencing of viruses isn’t new, but it’s a laborious process that takes time.

“You actually go through there and you’re basically trying to read what the genetic code (of the virus) is, and you’re basically doing it letter by letter,” he said. “It’s extremely powerful: it tells us very precisely and very quickly if there have been any changes. But it takes time. ”

Tam says Canada has been “very active” in genome sequencing over the past few days, using scientific networks across the country to research the specific British lineage, called B.1.1.7.

Provincial databases have been linked, Tam said, for a broader look at sequencing information, and the Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGeN), a non-profit organization funded by the Canadian government, has also been involved. “To consider what needs to be done more. ”

“They’ll give us a pretty good idea of ​​what’s going on,” she said. “What we can say is that at this stage we have not detected this mutation. But of course we will inform people as we go. ”

Tam said there are currently 25,000 sequences in Canada’s database, some of which are believed to have been collected from recent travelers.

That doesn’t sound like much, given that Canada has had more than 520,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, but Tam said sequencing efforts in the country were consistent with those in the UK, which detected the new variant via the same method.

Kindrachuk says it’s not possible to sequence the virus from every positive COVID test, so labs will sample it to see if patterns emerge.

“As people around the world start to notice the changes or new variations appear, we have the opportunity to look through our own pool of samples to see if we are seeing this (too) or not,” he said. .

Tam said the priority of the sequencing efforts was now on recent travelers to the region where the tension was most apparent, and Canada has banned travel from the UK for a 72-hour period starting Monday. to try to prevent the new lineage from entering our borders. .

Samples of pilot projects in Alberta and at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. – which collect data on COVID infection rates among international travelers arriving at major airports in Canada – are also targeted for sequencing, Tam said.

While much is still unclear about the potential implications of the new strain of COVID, Health Canada recently said there was no evidence to suggest that the main vaccine candidates still won’t work against it.

Tam says we can “flexibly adjust our public health measures” as new information becomes available, but the safety precautions officials have been preaching for months – keeping distance, limiting contact, washing hands – will always help to stop the transmission of the B.1.1 .7 strain.

“Is there a likelihood that it could land in Canada?” Yes, ”Tam said. “The only way to prevent it from spreading is to make what we have called for as a broken record. ”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 22, 2020.

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