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What is a COVID-19 variant?

May 10, 2021 • read

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What is a COVID-19 variant?

For over a year now, you’ve been taking necessary precautions to avoid getting sick from COVID-19. Wearing a mask, social distancing, enduring lockdowns, the whole nine yards. While you’ve worked hard to protect yourself from COVID-19, the virus became even more contagious, mutating into what’s known as COVID-19 variants.

So, what makes a variant different from the already contagious COVID-19 virus? And just how contagious are these variants? We’re going to break it all down for you so you’re armed with the information you need to stay safe.

Why COVID-19 variants have appeared

COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by the newly discovered coronavirus. All viruses evolve over time, and when a virus replicates, a slight change called a mutation can take place. When a virus goes through one or more new mutations, it’s called a variant. With COVID-19 circulating in a population and infecting many people, the likelihood of mutation increases. This is why multiple variants from around the world have appeared. 

What makes the variants so contagious?

While we’d love to say “back off variant, you aren’t that special”, variants have unique attributes that could make it easier for you to become infected. One of the characteristics of COVID-19 is the spike protein that penetrates host cells, which causes infection. With a variant, there are mutations in the spike protein that allow it to stick to the cells much more easily. This means the variant is more easily transmissible, and could be more successful at making you sick.

If you’re exposed to one of the variants, you could become infected in a shorter amount of time. That’s why limiting interactions with others, wearing a mask, and maintaining physical distance are all important safety measures.

What are the different variants?

So far, three variants have surfaced in Canada, as well as one variant of interest. The first variant, B.1.1.7, emerged in the U.K, and the first two cases in Canada were recorded in December of 2020. The second variant was B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, recorded here in January of 2021. The third variant was P.1, first seen in Brazil, recorded here in February of 2021. Studies have confirmed that B.1.1.7 is more transmissible than other variants. However, it has not been proven yet to lead to any change in the severity of illness.

In March of 2021, a new variant of interest called B.1.617, first detected in India, was recorded in Canada as well. You may have heard this variant of interest referred to as the “double mutant” – that’s because this specific variant carries two mutations. Up until now, mutations were spotted separately in other variants, never together. So far, 39 cases of B.1.617 have been reported in British Columbia, 36 in Ontario, 5 in Quebec, as well as 1 case each in Alberta, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador. 

To date, B.1.1.7 has been the most publicly reported variant, with 90,515 cases across the country. There have been 3,180 reported cases of the P.1 variant, and 541 of the B.1.351 variant. 

Can you get sick from a variant if you’ve already had COVID-19?

If you’ve already recovered from COVID-19, you may not be fully protected against the variants. More research is needed, but a report from Johns Hopkins Medicine found that when it comes to the B.1.351 variant specifically, even if you’ve had COVID-19 previously, you may still be at risk. While it has not been shown to cause more severe illness, health experts say there is a chance you could still become mildly or moderately ill. 

Will a variant make you more ill?

There is no conclusive evidence that any of the variants will cause more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected. The key thing to remember here is that the variants are more contagious. We know it can be tedious hearing people say “wash your hands, keep your distance, wear a mask”, but it is so important to continue following these protocols to help keep you safe.

Will the vaccine continue to work against all variants?

The COVID-19 vaccines currently being administered across Canada are expected to give at least some protection against the variants. If any of the vaccines are proven to be less effective against one or more variants, changes to the vaccine’s composition can be made. That being said, it’s important to continue to keep your distance, wear a mask, and wash your hands to reduce your risk of getting sick. 

How do you protect yourself from a COVID-19 variant?

Getting vaccinated and following safety guidelines is your best line of defence against COVID-19 variants. If you’re concerned about exposure or are not feeling well, get tested right away.

With Maple, if you live in the Greater Toronto Area, Calgary, or Halifax, you can get a COVID-19 test quickly and conveniently for travel, work, or other reasons. Just log into the app and book an appointment with one of our care specialists to get tested at a location nearest you.

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