Viruses change over time and can lead to new versions, or variants. Some variants of COVID-19 can spread more easily or quickly or may cause more serious illness. These are called variants of concern and may make it harder to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Last updated: February 23, 2021
- Cases of the new COVID-19 variants of concern have been reported in B.C. So far, these cases are only a small proportion of all the COVID-19 cases in the province.
- Initially, most cases caused by the variants are linked to travel or people who had contact with travelers. More recently, these variants have been detected in cases with no travel history. This means that the virus is also spreading in the community.
- The new variants of concern spread the same way as the original COVID-19 virus. Wearing masks, physical distancing, washing your hands, and staying home when you aren’t feeling well help stop the spread of the new variants.
- Because the new variants may be better at spreading and infecting people, it is even more important to keep following public health recommendations.
- Most vaccines are still expected to protect people from having a severe case of COVID-19, including from new COVID-19 variants.
- 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 other changes can be important enough to become what is called a new variant. New variants may be a concern when they change how a virus spreads, how sick people get, and how a virus reacts to the body’s immune system.
Several COVID-19 variants of concern have been discovered in different regions of the world, including:
- B.1.1.7, the variant first reported in the United Kingdom (UK), spreads more easily, and may quickly increase the number of cases. It might also cause more severe disease.
- B.1.351, the variant first reported in South Africa, spreads more easily and may be able to hide from the body’s immune system.
- B.1.525, the variant first associated with travel to Nigeria, which may also be able to hide from the body’s immune system.
- P.1, the variant first reported in Japan but later identified in Brazil, which may be able to re-infect people who have had COVID-19.
Experts and scientists are studying the new COVID-19 variants. Some variants have been found to share changes that allow them to spread more easily. Others may make a COVID-19 infection more severe, although more studies are needed to confirm this. The B.1.351 and B.1.525 variants have been found to respond differently to the body’s immune system. More variants of concern may be discovered as research in this area continues.
Public health researchers have found cases of three different COVID-19 variants in B.C. (B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and B.1.525). Some variant cases were found by testing people who have travelled outside the country and their close contacts. Routine testing in the province detected some variant cases in the community that were not linked to travel.
Right now, the variants of concern are not the most common form of COVID-19 in the province – but this situation could change rapidly. In some regions of the world, the new variants are now the most common version of COVID-19.
Researchers have found that the new variants spread the same way as the original COVID-19. Current public health measures help limit the spread of these versions including:
- frequent hand washing
- wearing masks
- physical distancing
- staying home when you’re sick.
Because the variants may 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.
Most of the current vaccines have been shown to still protect people against a developing a severe case of COVID-19 caused by the variants of concern. Researchers have found that some vaccines may not work well for specific COVID-19 variants, such as B.1.351. Scientists are studying the relationship between current vaccines and the new variants of concern very closely.
Regular COVID-19 testing cannot detect specific variants of COVID-19; these tests can only tell us if someone has the virus or not.
Two types of testing is used to detect and confirm variants in positive COVID-19 patients.
- A screening test for variants of concern (VOC screen).
- Genomic sequencing is done on positive screens to confirm that the case is caused by a COVID-19 variant.
The BCCDC Public Health Lab is also using genetic sequncing on a proportion of COVID-19 cases to understand which variants are circulating in B.C. and to identify any new variants.
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.