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Unknown how rapidly new COVID-19 variant might spread in B.C.: epidemiologist

coronavirus

Daniel Coombs, an epidemiologist at the ­University of British Columbia, said he’s surprised to see the presence of the U.K. variant of COVID-19 on Vancouver Island, which has had relatively limited spread of the virus.

The virus that causes COVID-19 has been mutating throughout the months of the pandemic but this new variant, called B.1.1.7, has been mutating quicker than expected. It has multiple spike protein mutations that have made it 70 per cent more transmissible than previous variants, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Coombs said it remains to be seen how the new variant will affect B.C.’s R rate, which is the number of people to whom one infected person will pass on the virus.

The U.K. government said last week the new variant could increase the virus reproduction R rate by 0.4, from 1.1 to 1.5. B.C.’s R rate is currently 0.9.

Coombs said the R rate is determined by how contagious the disease is and the behaviour of people, so public health measures like social distancing and a ban on social gatherings can keep transmission down.

B.1.1.7 was spreading for months in the U.K. undetected, Coombs said. Canada, he said, has the benefit of more knowledge and research to influence individual behaviour and government policies.

He also pointed out that B.C.’s daily COVID-19 case numbers have been trending downward, which has not been the case in the U.K.

“It does remain to be seen if it will spread more rapidly in Canada or in B.C.” Coombs said.

The variant has caused record numbers of COVID-19 infections in the United Kingdom, and Canada has put in place a ban on all flights arriving from the U.K.

However, the variant has spread to other European countries, as well as Australia and Japan, and without a wider ban on international flights, it will likely continue to spread in Canada, Coombs said.

If the U.K. strain does prove to be highly transmissible in Canada, it will mean the process of vaccinating enough people to stop the spread of COVID-19 will take longer, Coombs said. That could mean the country will need at least 70 per cent of the population to receive the vaccine to create herd immunity, he said.

B.C.’s Ministry of Health has not announced new COVID-19 restrictions in light of the presence of the new variant.