Multiple COVID-19 variants are circulating globally. In Ontario, both travel-related and community transmission cases of the variants have been identified. Currently, three variants of COVID-19 are causing concern. They are:

A strain identified in the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7 or 501Y.V1

  • This variant was first identified in the United Kingdom.
  • Since December 2020, the variant has become the dominant strain in southeast England. It has been detected in multiple health units across Ontario.
  • Research suggests that this variant is associated with increased transmissibility, which means it spreads more easily and quickly.
  • It is estimated that this variant is at least 56% more contagious than the more common strain of the virus, but could be as high as 75% more contagious.
  • In March, this variant will likely be the most dominant strain in Ontario.

A strain identified in South Africa, known as B.1.351 or 501Y.V2

  • The variant was first identified in South Africa.
  • Research suggests that this variant has a higher viral load, which means higher amounts of virus in the body. This variant seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants.
  • The variant has been detected in multiple health units in Ontario.

A strain identified in Brazil, known as P.1, B.1.1.28 or E484K

  • The variant was first identified in Brazil.
  • Early research suggests that this variant is more transmissible and could increase the risk of re-infection in individuals who have recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection.
  • Multiple cases have been detected in Ontario.

Are these new variants more dangerous?

Ongoing research shows that the three variants have increased transmissibility. This means they are likely to spread more easily.

Higher transmission rates mean increased demands on the health care system, for example, more cases, more hospitalizations, more admissions to intensive care units, and more deaths.

While evidence is still emerging, there is concern that some of the variants may carry a higher risk of severe illness or death. Provincial modelling suggests that a variant may become the dominant strain of the virus in Ontario by March 2021. 

Continue to follow public health measures to reduce your risk of infection with the COVID-19 virus.

Will the vaccine still work on the new variants?

The COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada are likely to remain effective against the new fast-spreading variants of the virus, but more research is needed.

Why are there new strains of the virus?

All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, change over time through mutation. A mutation can change a virus’s ability to infect people.

The potential for mutations in a virus increases with the number of cases. With over 90 million confirmed cases worldwide, the virus has had abundant opportunity to mutate.

What additional measures are in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants?

New variants of concern spread faster and more easily, which can result in more cases, more hospitalizations, more admissions to intensive care units, and more deaths. To prevent increased demands on the health care system, the Government of Ontario has introduced an “emergency brake.” If cases increase rapidly or if the health care system is at risk of becoming overwhelmed, the “emergency brake” may be used to slow the spread. The “emergency brake” means that a region would be moved into the Grey-Lockdown category immediately to interrupt transmission of COVID-19. Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, in consultation with local medical officers of health, would make this decision.

Learn about additional steps that the government of Ontario has taken here.

How are variants of concern identified?

Identifying variants of concern is a two-phase approach. First, all positive COVID-19 swabs are run through a preliminary screen for variants. The timeline for this initial screen is generally about 24-72 hours, and the quick timeline makes it possible for health units to conduct enhanced contact tracing. 

If indicated, COVID-19 swabs that have tested positive for a variant are run through a genomic sequencing test. This test determines the strain of the variant. This test has a much longer turnaround time and now takes about 1-3 weeks. 

Have variants of concern (VOC) been detected in the Timiskaming district?

Yes. For more information, see our page What is the current situation in Timiskaming

For a summary of VOC confirmed cases in Ontario, see Public Health Ontario’s COVID-19 Daily Epidemiological Summary.