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A nurse guides people being tested for COVID-19 outside a hospital in Toronto, on Dec. 10, 2020.

CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Ontario has reported its first case of a COVID-19 variant that emerged in South Africa last year, with the province’s top doctor saying more such infections are expected to be found in the future.

Dr. David Williams said Monday that the variant was found in Peel Region. The infected person had neither travelled nor had any known contact with anyone who travelled, he said.

“This is our first South African one. I would doubt if it’s going to be our last,” Williams said.

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Data from South Africa shows the variant known as B.1.351 has a higher viral load, meaning it may be more infectious, Williams said.

A small number of cases have already been confirmed in other Canadian provinces, including Alberta and British Columbia.

Peel Region’s medical officer of health said he was “concerned” about the variant being found in his community, especially given that there was no history of travel with the case.

“We are starting to see our cases plateau and community spread of this variant may change this suddenly,” Dr. Lawrence Loh said in a statement.

He urged residents to continue following public health guidelines to protect against the new strains.

Moderna, which is supplying COVID-19 vaccines to Canada, said last month it was planning to test booster vaccines on the variant, though the company said it believes its current formula still offers some level of protection.

The variant first detected in South Africa, which has become the dominant strain in that country, is one of three “variants of concern” that Public Health Ontario is increasingly screening for in the province.

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Officials have already confirmed dozens of cases of a variant that emerged in the U.K., including a cluster of infections linked to outbreaks in long-term care homes in Barrie and Waterloo.

Earlier Monday, Toronto Public Health said it had linked two cases of that variant to an outbreak at a meat processing facility that has infected 78 people.

“At this time, there is no indication that any cases identified in the outbreak had recently travelled or had contact with a person who travelled recently,” it said in a statement.

Belmont Meats voluntarily closed on Jan. 28 amid the public health investigation, the unit said.

Meanwhile, nearby York Region said Monday that it had recorded 39 total cases of the variant first detected in the U.K.

While the majority are now resolved, the municipality said there are 24 households associated with the cases, and 10 were spread through “local transmission.”

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As of Sunday, Public Health Ontario had confirmed 69 total cases of the U.K. variant in the province, though regional officials have said they believe the number is likely much higher.

Another variant, first detected in Brazil, has not yet been found in Ontario, but Williams said Monday he wouldn’t surprised to see it in the province at some point.

Health and science experts advising the province said last week that the spread of the variant that emerged in the U.K. poses a significant threat to Ontario’s control of the pandemic -- a message Williams repeated on Monday.

Williams said data so far is “encouraging” that the province’s stay-at-home measures -- implemented in a bid to control previously skyrocketing case rates -- may be holding the variants’ spread at bay. But he said the picture can change quickly if the province lifts restrictions too soon.

“We’re disappointed that there may be already community spread of the U.K. variant. How bad it is, and how quickly it’s going to go, we don’t know yet,” he said. “We want to be able to assess that carefully before we just open things up totally.”

The new variant cases reported Monday case as Ontario began making all international travellers flying into Toronto take a COVID-19 tests on arrival.

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The program is similar to a federal plan set to be implemented in the near future. Premier Doug Ford said Ontario would conduct its own traveller testing until Ottawa’s program kicked in.

The testing order that took effect at the Toronto airport Monday will eventually apply to the province’s land border crossings to the United States.

Ontario reported 1,969 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 36 more deaths linked to the virus.

A spokeswoman for Ontario’s Ministry of Health said that as Toronto migrates to the provincial data system, additional records were reported for the local public health unit, resulting in an overestimate of Monday’s daily counts.

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak. The Globe and Mail

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