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COVID-19 Variants

Viruses naturally mutate over time and lead to new versions or variants. Variants include different lineages and sublineages that share similar genetic mutations.

Last updated: July 15, 2022


New variants are monitored closely by agencies around the world. If a variant is detected that is known to spread more easily, cause more serious illness, or impact treatment or vaccine effectiveness, it is designated as a Variant of Concern (VoC). 

If a new variant is detected that may transmit more easily or cause more severe illness, it is referred to as a Variant under Monitoring (VUM) until more is known. 

Five COVID-19 Variants of Concern have been detected in BC: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron.

Key points

  • Omicron has evolved to include many different sublineages.
  • Currently Omicron (BA.5 and many other sublineages) are the most commonly detected variants in BC.
  • Public health and researchers are studying the Omicron sublineages closely.
    • Omicron has been found to spread more easily between people than previous COVID-19 variants.
    • People can spread Omicron to others even if they have been vaccinated, especially when they have symptoms.
    • People who are vaccinated have a milder case of Omicron and are less likely to end up in the hospital than people who are not vaccinated.
  • Current vaccines provide good protection against severe illness and hospitalizations for Omicron
    • A third vaccine dose helps to provide more protection from Omicron
    • Breakthrough infections can occur in people who are fully vaccinated
  • People who have had COVID-19 can get sick again from new variants.
    • Getting vaccinated is important even if you have already had COVID-19.
  • Monitoring and research on the new COVID-19 variants is ongoing. This page will be updated regularly as more is known.
  • More details on the current sampling and sequencing strategies can be found in the Testing for COVID-19 variants section below.

It is normal for viruses to change over time. Some viruses, like influenza, change often while other viruses hardly change at all over many years. Most genetic changes in a virus don't have much impact but some lead to new variants that can act differently in ways that are important to public health. 


When genetic changes lead to a variant that can spread more easily, cause more serious illness, or impact current treatments or vaccine effectiveness, it is called a Variant of Concern (VoC).In some cases, VoC classifications can include lineages and sublineages that share genetic changes. 


Variants of viruses naturally merge to form a hybrid or recombinant versions. Scientists have identified this process in the COVID-19 virus. A Delta-Omicron recombinant has been detected recently in the USA, UK, Australia, and parts of Europe but the number of cases of this version remains low. The sequencing technology used in B.C. is capable of detecting recombinant variants of COVID-19.


BC aligns with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to determine which variants are classified as VoCs. Currently, the VoCs include:

  • Omicron (B.1.1.529), was first detected in South Africa on November 9, 2021. Omicron has mutations in the spike region, which affects how it spreads and how it responds to treatments and vaccinations. vaccinations. 
    • The Omicron variants includes many lineages such as BA.1 and BA,2*, and sublineages (BA.2.12, BA.1.1* etc.). Figure 1 in the weekly data report lists the current Omicron sublineages that have been detected in the province.
  • Delta (B.1.617.2) is a sublineage of B.1.617, which was first detected in India. Delta spreads more easily and may lead to more severe disease, particularly for unvaccinated people. Delta includes B.1.617.2 and many AY.* sublineages.

  • Gamma (P.1) the variant first reported in Japan but later identified as originating in Brazil, which may be able to re-infect people who have had COVID-19. Gamma includes two sublineages P.1.1 and P.1.2. Some current treatments may not work as well on cases of this variant. 

  • Beta (B.1.351) the variant first reported in South Africa, spreads more easily than older strains and has numerous sublineages. Some current treatments and vaccines may not work as well on cases of this variant and its sublineages, yet this VoC did not become established globally. 

  • Alpha (B.1.1.7) the variant first reported in the UK spreads more easily and can cause more severe illness than previous versions. Alpha also includes the Q.* sublineages.

Viruses naturally evolve over time, and some variants can merge to form a hybrid or recombinant version. Scientists have identified COVID-19 recombinants, such as the Delta-Omicron recombinant detected in the USA, UK, Australia, and parts of Europe. So far, the number of COVID-19 cases due to recombinants variants remains low. The sequencing technology used in B.C. detects COVID-19 recombinants and these are reported in the weekly data report by using an “X”. Recombinant viruses are monitored in the same way that new variants are monitored, to determine their transmissibility, vaccine escape and other properties.


The BCCDC is also actively monitoring for new variants of interest (VOI) as they emerge around the world and assessing whether these variants have been identified in B.C.  Some VOIs have been given WHO names and others remain unnamed. In some cases, VOI are downgraded when the scientific community no longer considers them a concern, although agencies continue to monitor for them. 


Experts and scientists are studying the new COVID-19 variants to better understand their impact and if they change the course of COVID-19 illness. Early studies suggest that current vaccines will continue to provide good protection against severe disease.

Five COVID-19 Variants of Concern have been detected in BC: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron. Initially, most VoC cases were found by testing people who have travelled outside the country and their close contacts. Now, most cases are from spread between people in the community in BC.  

 

The BCCDC COVID-19 weekly variants data report provides information on the proportion of VoCs in the province, including the lineages and sublineages, that have been detected in the province.


The federal government provides a regular update on the number of COVID-19 variants of concern detected in each province and territory. Omicron has replaced Delta as the dominant variant in Canada. 

  • PCR tests can tell if someone has COVID-19, but these tests do not identify COVID-19 variants. Genomic sequencing is used in B.C. to detect variants, provide detailed information about variant lineages, and identify other changes or mutations in the virus. 
  • Genomic sequencing can take from 4 to 7 days after the sample arrives at the BCCDC Public Health Laboratory and the results, including the number and type of variant, are posted weekly.  
  • To address the Omicron variant and current testing guidelines, B.C. is sequencing a portion of positive samples. 
    • B.C.’s sequencing strategy will continue to adapt as the situation changes. 
  • Information on VoC types is collected for public health surveillance and linked to the case’s vaccine status to allow for near real-time monitoring of vaccine effectiveness against variants.
  • The type of VoC a person is infected with is not routinely reported for the purpose of patient care.
  • Researchers around the world are working together to share information on the new variants and learn more about how they will impact people, healthcare systems, and vaccine development.


Reducing the Spread of COVID-19 Variants

The new variants spread the same way as the original COVID-19, although some of the newer variants, such as Omicron, transmit much easier between people. Getting vaccinated, staying home when sick, visiting others outdoors or in small groups, wearing masks in indoor public spaces, increasing ventilation, and cleaning your hands are all important measures that will help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Getting vaccinated helps to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants.
Research conducted in BC found that vaccines provide very good protection against serious illness and hospitalization for all of the COVID-19 variants, including all lineages and sublineages of Delta and Omicron.

SOURCE: COVID-19 Variants ( )
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