As we’ve seen with COVID-19, there have been several variants of the virus that have emerged since the start of the pandemic. It is not uncommon for viruses (such as influenza, for example), to change over time – while some viruses will remain the same. When viruses like COVID-19 do change and mutate, they are closely monitored by public health officials.
Among the most talked about variants of COVID-19 are the Alpha (B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351), Gamma (P.1) and Delta (B.1.617.2) variants – with the Delta variant currently accounting for the majority of COVID-19 cases in British Columbia and around the world.
A variant of COVID-19 is deemed a VOC (Variant of Concern) by the World Health Organization when it meets the following criteria:
• Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; OR
• Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; OR
• Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measure or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.
Omicron (B.1.1.529) – the most recent COVID-19 variant to emerge – was first documented in South Africa in mid-November and has since been detected in over 30 countries – including right here in Canada. The Omicron variant has up to 32 mutations on spike protein and as many as 10 mutations on the receptor binding domains. The more mutations there are of a variant, the easier it is to transmit from person to person on a much more rapid scale; and while scientists say that there is reason for concern pertaining to the transmissibility of the variant as well as a spike in re-infection of COVID-19 according to one South African study – there is also much we don’t know. For example, whether or not the Omicron variant can lead to more severe illness compared to other variants, if the severity of the Omicron variant is equal to other variants or less severe, or if vaccines will work against it – data that could take several weeks to learn.
While health officials await new data on this variant, important temporary precautions have been taken to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant – particularly around travel, with many countries reverting back to old measures. In Canada, any traveller who has been in South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and/or Eswatini from November 12th onwards will be barred from entering the country. If you are a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident and have been to any of the aforementioned countries, you will be allowed to return home – however, you must have a negative PCR test prior to boarding your flight to Canada, must take an additional test upon your arrival to Canada, and must quarantine in a hotel until your test has a confirmed negative result followed by quarantining at your home for an additional 14 days thereafter.
Along with using all layers of protection – such as staying home when you’re feeling sick, washing your hands frequently, physically distancing yourself from others, working from home, as well as wearing a face mask, the next best thing you can do to protect yourself and those around you is to get vaccinated. If you haven’t yet received your first or second COVID-19 vaccine, it’s important you do so. Booster vaccines are also being made available to those 18 years of age or older.