'It’s certainly concerning...eye-opening': The U.K. COVID-19 mutation isn't the only one, the deadliest version was found in April

When UK public health officials announced that a new variant of COVID-19 was "out of control", the Canadian government acted quickly to close the border to inbound flights from the UK. The new strain, named B.1.1.7, is said to be 70 percent more transmissible than the current strain D614G, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"I called a meeting with the Incident Response Group this afternoon. We have focused on the new variant of COVID-19 that has been identified in the UK and we have decided to introduce new border restrictions to you and the people across the country keep - safe, "wrote Trudeau on Twitter.
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Canada later made the decision to extend the UK flight ban until January 6, 2021.
While there is no evidence that this variant is more deadly or causes a higher risk of serious illness, panic and concern have quickly spread around the world. The original COVID-19 virus, which first clocked in Wuhan, China, is not the one ravaging most of the world. This particular strain, best known as D614G, was originally found in Europe in April and then spread around the world.
"It is certainly worrying, but the number of mutations we have seen in this one variant is not to be expected," said Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, Assistant Professor and Canadian Research Chair in Emerging Viruses at the University of Manitoba.
The mutations that have emerged within the virus have shown that they can infect cells and the new variant is quickly overtaking the current virus, especially in the UK, but little is known about it. When researchers like Kindrachuk and others begin to examine the data, he admits that little is known to the global community, but there was an expectation that they would come across different variants.
"This is an integral part of what viruses do. We understand that things like this can happen," said Kindrachuk.
The latest variant has been paced by UK Genome Surveillance to better understand the spread of different variants that may have emerged during the pandemic. Both Canada and the US have similar surveillance programs, but Kindrachuk notes that they may not be as robust as the current UK setup and shows why investing in public health is so important.
"We need to characterize what this means before we slip into the pandemonium. We don't have all the data, but this shows why sequence monitoring is so important," said Kindrachuk.
Coronavirus variant not yet in Canada, health officials say
Canadian health officials said Tuesday the new variant of the coronavirus has not yet been identified in Canada and international travel is not a major spreading factor of COVID-19 as Ontario Prime Minister Doug Ford calls for more testing from people from other countries.
The surveillance aspect is central as the Canadian health authority said Monday that the new variant may already be in Canada as it awaits results from samples. Investing in a solid and impressive surveillance program becomes more necessary as we move through the pandemic.
"We will probably see more variants, this will not be the only one, we still have a long way to go to survive this pandemic," said Kindrachuk.
Will the current vaccine cover the new COVID-19 variant?
The effects of the COVID-19 vaccine may not last forever
While the studies of Pfizer and Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines have produced robust immune responses in patients, says infectious disease specialist Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti that there are things we do not know. With the vaccine so new, officials are still investigating how long vaccination against the COVID-19 vaccine could take. The duration is expected to be a year or more, but many people wonder if it is similar to the flu shot, which requires dosing every year or every few years.
While Kindrachuk understandably notes the challenges a new variant might pose, it notes that both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have vaccine platforms that are relatively easy to adjust to accommodate the changes noted with the UK variant deal with.
"I sleep a little better knowing that the vaccine platforms used for COVID-19 have used very broad technology so we can get good coverage of the virus," he said.
A vaccine platform is an infrastructure that can easily be modified to combat emerging infectious disease vaccines without the burden of significant additional finances or tweaking a lot to achieve mass production or regulatory approval.
“With the two vaccines, the platforms are easily customizable. So if you see things that have a new twist on them that are cause for concern, or make the vaccine less effective, you now have the opportunity to adjust in a short amount of time and scale over time, ”said Kindrachuk.
While the UK-native variant may be new on the surface, the methods to make sure it doesn't spread, even if it's more transmissible, remain the same, according to Kindrachuk.
"Masking, social distancing, all of the infection prevention measures we talked about for most of the year still apply. The best way to counter the virus is by doing these things right," he said.
Within ten months it was found that two vaccine candidates are over 90 percent effective and are already being distributed. This is a huge win, according to Kindrachuk. While new varieties and infectious diseases may always be affected, he admits that in this scenario, the global camaraderie to resolve the pandemic is a sign of optimism.
"If I do this with a global effort and by sharing global data from moment to moment, I will feel better about where we are going to end up," Kindrachuk said.
"We have to value the smartest people in the world who work on it."

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