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COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Three of these been found in Canada so far.

B.1.1.7

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  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Quebec have had thousands.

B.1.351

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have at least one case, but not as many as B.1.1.7.

P.1

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. Researchers are still learning how it affects vaccine efficacy.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and Alberta.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

If you test positive for COVID-19, health officials need to genetically sequence your sample to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and that process may vary depending on your province or territory. For your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a variant or not: Assume that you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

If I’m not sick (as far as I know), how do I avoid variants?

Variants make it more important than ever to limit your contact with others, and when you do go out, protect yourself with better masks to stay safe from the short-range airborne transmission of the virus. Federal guidelines recommend your masks have at least two cloth layers and a filter layer. Make sure your mask fits properly too.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

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