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COVID-19 Variants

Viruses change over time and can lead to new versions, or variants. When changes lead to a variant that can spread more easily, cause more serious illness, or impact treatments or vaccine effectiveness, it is called a Variant of Concern (VoC).

Last updated: September 10, 2021


Key points

  • Delta is currently the most common COVID-19 variant in the province. 

  • Delta spreads easily between people and may lead to more serious outcomes than other versions of COVID-19 for adults.
    • For children, Delta leads to more cases but the outcomes remain the same as with other variants.

  • The current vaccines protect against all Variants of Concern, including Delta 
    • Being fully vaccinated provides more protection than a single dose.

  • Some people who have had COVID-19 may get sick again from new variants
    • Getting vaccinated is important even if you have already had COVID-19. 

  • As more people are fully vaccinated, it is less likely that COVID-19 variants will spread in the community.     
    • This helps protect people who cannot get vaccinated, including children under 12. 

  • Monitoring and research on the new COVID-19 variants is on-going. This page will be updated regularly as more is known.

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 which 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 sublineages which share genetic changes. 


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

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

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 researchers no longer consider them a concern, although agencies continue to monitor for them. 


The VOIs of interest to B.C. scientists include (in alphabetical order):

  • Eta (B.1.525) which was first detected in Nigeria in late 2020.
  • Epsilon (B.1.427 and B.1.429) variants first reported in California, USA. Both spread more easily, and some current treatments and vaccines may not work as well on cases of this variant. In July 2021, Epsilon was downgraded to alert status and is no longer a variant of interest.
  • Iota (B.1.526 and B.1.526.1), variants first detected in New York in late 2020.
  • Kappa (B.1.617.1), a sublineage of B.1.617, the variant first detected in India.
  • Lambda (C.37), first detected in Peru.
  • Theta (P.3), which may have similar properties to Gamma and Beta. In July 2021, Theta was downgraded to alert status and is no longer a variant of interest.
  • Zeta (P.2), a variant first detected in Brazil in early 2020. Some treatments and vaccines may not work as well on this variant. In July 2021, Zeta was downgraded to alert status and is no longer a variant of interest
  • Mu includes B.1.621 and C.1.2. Mu is a relatively recent variant and is being closely monitored. 
  • B.1.618, a variant first detected in India that is also referred to as the “triple mutant”.
A current list of all the variants that have been detected in B.C. is available in Table 2 in the report on the variants section on the BC COVID-19 data page.

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.  Some variants have the same genetic changes, even though they were first detected in different countries. Other variants, such as Delta, have at least two sets of changes that can impact how the virus behaves in the body. 

B.C. has cases of all four COVID-19 VoCs. 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, not from travellers.  

 

Currently, the most common VoC in B.C. is Delta. The BCCDC COVID-19 data page provides information on the proportion of Variants of Concern 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. 

PCR tests can tell if someone has COVID-19, but these tests do not identify COVID-19 variants. Genomic sequencing is used in BC to provide more detailed information about variant lineages and identify other changes or mutations across the viral genome. Genomic sequencing can take from 4-7 days and the results, including the number and type of variant, are posted weekly.  

 

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.


Information on VoC types is collected for public health surveillance and is routinely reported to health officials across BC.  The type of VoC a person has does not affect the medical care they receive.  Therefore, this information 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; current public health measures (frequent hand washing, physical distancing, wearing a well-fitted, 3 layer mask, and staying home when you're sick) help limit the spread.  

However, because the variants spread more easily, it is even more important for people to follow the current public health recommendations. People should also continue to avoid crowded or poorly ventilated spaces. Getting vaccinated helps to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants.

Getting vaccinated helps to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants.  
Vaccines have been given to people around the world under situations where different COVID-19 variants were common. These experiences provide important clues for how effective the vaccines are against specific versions of COVID-19. The Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD vaccines provide good protection from Alpha and Gamma, both of which are common in B.C. 

The Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine have been found to provide good protection against Beta, although the AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD vaccine may be less effective.

Two doses of Pfizer-BioNtech or AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD provide very good protection against the Delta variant, especially against severe outcomes. A recent study from Ontario found that the Moderna vaccine provides similar protection against the Delta variant as the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. 


 


 

SOURCE: COVID-19 Variants ( )
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