COVID-19- Variants of Concern (VOC)
Last Reviewed/Updated: 8:37 a.m., April 8, 2021
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Viruses are known to mutate over time. This can cause variants, or different strains, of the same virus. New variants can be different from the original virus in their transmissibility and severity of disease. With COVID-19, the variants of concern (VOC) tend to be more highly transmissible. This means that the virus spreads more easily between people. Community members will need to follow the same public health practices more strictly to prevent transmission. For information on the local COVID-19 variant cases, visit the Local COVID-19 Tracker.
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What are the COVID-19 variants
What do we know about the B.1.1.7 variant
How are the cases of the variant identified?
What should you do to prevent the transmission of VOCs
FAQ: Covid-19 variants of concern
Three variants of concern have been identified worldwide:
- B.1.1.7—originated in the United Kingdom, this is the most common variant worldwide, and has been detected in Ontario (December 2020).
- B.1.351 – originated in South Africa, this variant has recently been detected in Ontario (February 2021).
- P.1 – originated in Brazil, the first case of this variant was detected in Ontario (January 16, 2021).
Experts continue to study how the virus is changing by understanding its genetic make-up. This will help us understand how changes to the virus might affect how it spreads, or how it presents in people.
Find the number of cases for each of the variants in Ontario here.
- First detected in the UK in September 2020 and is now widespread in London and southeast England. The new variant has mostly been identified among individuals younger than 60 years of age, however this is consistent with the overall increase of COVID-19 cases being in this age group.
- Detected in numerous cities worldwide and in Ontario in December 2020.
- Transmits more easily and quickly than other variants, evidence indicates it could be 56-70% more transmissible.
- At this time, there is no consistent evidence suggesting the variant is likely to cause more severe disease.
- Both Pfizer and Moderna indicated that their COIVD-19 vaccines appear to be effective against the B.1.1.7 variant. This is likely because the part of the virus that changed doesn’t impact how the vaccine works.
Peterborough Public Health and the Public Health Ontario Labs are watching closely for any VOCs. All positive COVID-19 tests are screened for the VOCs by the Public Health Ontario Lab. Once a positive case is identified, it can take the Public Health Ontario Lab up to 14 days to determine the precise strain of VOC. Often, PPH receives the information sooner.
The first case of the B.1.1.7 variant case in Peterborough was identified on February 23, 2021. For more information on the local COVID-19 variant cases, visit the Local COVID-19 Tracker.
Everyone is encouraged to continue following the COVID-19 – Guidance for Everyone to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and its variants. All the recommendations should be followed to reduce the risk of transmission. The safest option is to restrict all non-essential travel and to socialize only with household members. Residents are also asked to stay local, and to not travel between health unit regions or have guests from other regions visit.
Individuals who qualify for the limited exemptions for wearing a mask are encouraged to wear a face shield instead of a mask or to stay at home. We recommend that these individuals make use of online ordering and delivery options. Following these recommendations is the safest option, especially to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants.
If you suspect that you have been in contact with a case of COVID-19, or you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, seek testing and isolate until you receive your test results. Once you do receive the results, follow the public health recommendations associated with your diagnosis.
Where did the variants come from?
What is a virus variant?
Are the variants more transmissible or contagious?
How are cases with variants identified?
How do we stop the spread of variants?
How many variant cases are in Ontario right now?
What is the difference between presumed and confirmed VOC cases on the Local COVID Tracker?
What is PPH doing to protect against the variants?
How do we protect ourselves against the variants?
Three COVID-19 variants of concern have been identified worldwide:
B.1.1.7 – originated in the United Kingdom (UK) in late September 2020
B.1.351 – originated in South Africa in late 2020
P.1 – originated in Brazil in December 2020
The Public Health Labs in Ontario continues to test positive results for these and any other emerging variants of COVID-19.
Viruses are known to mutate and change over time to create new variants or strains. Mutations are common among other coronaviruses as well. To be considered a variant of concern, the new strain of the virus must have clinical or public health significance that affects one or more of the following: transmissibility (how quickly it spreads), severity of disease, vaccine effectiveness, and diagnostic testing
B.1.1.7: Early modelling indicates that this strain may be between 56-70% more transmissible. Contact tracing investigations in the UK show that the secondary attack rate may be higher than other variants (15.1% versus 9.8%). This means that the number of close contacts of a confirmed COVID-19 case who become positive for COVID-19 is higher. At this time, there is no clear evidence suggesting the variant causes more severe disease.
B.1.351 (South African variant): Early modelling studies show that this strain is more transmissible than strains that circulated during the first wave of the pandemic. At this time, not enough data is available to determine the severity of this variant.
P.1: Little is known about the transmissibility of this variant; however, it contains the same mutation associated with increased transmissibility as the other two VOCs. There has been one confirmed case of reinfection with the P.1 variant, and some studies suggest that it may be able to infect people who have received the vaccine. At this time, little is known about the severity of this variant.
Analyses of all positive COVID-19 test results are conducted by the Public Health Ontario Laboratory. All positive COVID-19 cases are screened for a mutation that is shared by the VOCs. This process can take 1-2 days. If the specimen screens positive for a VOC, we are alerted while the Public Health Lab conducts genomic sequencing of the virus to determine the precise strain. Genomic sequencing can take up to 14 days. The Public Health lab also test results for other variants that may be emerging. This is just one more reason why getting tested when you have symptoms is so important.
The layering of all public health measures together will be the most effective in reducing the spread of variants. This means everyone needs to wear their masks, maintain a minimum of 2-metres of physical distance from others, wash their hands frequently, and keep close contacts to household members only. Residents are asked to restrict non-essential travel, especially outside of Peterborough City and County. If you are unable to wear a mask, PPH recommends engaging in online ordering and delivery services. If you suspect you have been in contact with a case of COVID-19, or if you are experiencing any symptoms, seek testing and isolate until you receive your test results and associated instructions.
As of February 22, 2021, Ontario is reporting a total of 390 cases of variant B.1.1.7, 9 cases of variant B.1.351, and 1 case of variant P.1. For up-to-date information on the number of cases per variant, please check out the daily summary of cases in Ontario.
Positive COVID-19 cases are screened for a mutation that all the variants share. The screening can take up to 1-2 days. If the test screens positive for the mutation, we count it as a presumed VOC on our tracker. To determine the precise VOC the Ontario Public Health Labs conduct genomic sequencing. The sequencing can take 7-14 days. Once we receive confirmation on the specific strain, then that case is officially listed as confirmed case of VOC on our tracker.
PPH is closely watching for variants locally, and is currently working with local partners to ramp up vaccinations of high-risk populations. PPH is also implementing the provincial guidance for strengthening measures we know work, including identifying high risk contacts and more intense outbreak management if a variant does occur in a high-risk setting, such as a school or workplace.
Continue to follow public health guidelines including handwashing, sanitizing high touch surfaces, physical distancing, wearing a mask, and staying home as much as possible. Do not have close contacts outside your household, unless for essential purposes like providing child care. Do not travel outside of the Peterborough region, unless it is essential. If you believe that you have come in contact with someone with COVID-19, or if you have symptoms of COIVD-19 please get tested and isolate. Testing is the best way to detect any variants of concern. Continue to isolate until you receive your test results and associated instructions.