In recent months, news of variants of the SARS-CoV-2 have been making waves. A strain of a virus is considered a variant when it has mutations that change its genetic code. Variants of a virus can affect who is most impacted by it, the symptoms that one might experience, how quickly the virus spreads, how deadly it may be, as well as its response to vaccines.

Currently, the known variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus include:

B.1.1.7 (first identified in the United Kingdom)
B.1.351 (first identified in South Africa)
P.1 (first identified in Brazil)

In British Columbia, we have so far seen a total of 25 cases of the U.K. variant and 15 cases of the South African variant reported as of February 8th – bringing the total to 40. While the majority of these variants found in our province have been linked to travel, there have been some instances where health officials have been unable to determine the original source. Despite there not yet being any widespread community outbreaks of these variants, they are cause for concern given the alarming rate of transmission that is known to happen, which has been seen in other parts of the world. Also found in each of the variants is a mutation known as E484K. This particular mutation is also equally concerning as research suggests that it has an impact on not just the body’s immune response, but also the efficiency of vaccines.

In order to help further identify these variants in British Columbia, genome sequencing on positive COVID-19 tests is being increased from hundreds to thousands per week – including random sampling of certain demographics, positive tests linked to international travellers, as well as those that have been linked to outbreaks.

In the meantime, British Columbians are urged to continue doing what we know works to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to prevent further spread of the aforementioned variants. This means continuing to follow public health orders – i.e., sticking to your immediate household and avoiding large gatherings, avoiding all non-essential travel, and wearing masks in all indoor public spaces (such as at grocery stores, shopping malls, medical facilities, libraries, etc.) It’s also important to continue utilizing other layers of protection, including keeping a 6 feet/2 metre distance from others when out in public, washing your hands frequently with warm water and soap (or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer), and, most importantly, staying home if you are exhibiting any signs of illness.