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A man walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic, in Montreal, on Feb. 12, 2021.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s government-mandated public health institute warned Friday that more transmissible novel coronavirus variants will represent the majority of infections in the province by the first week of April.

But Premier Francois Legault told reporters later in the day he wasn’t considering reversing his decision to reopen gyms or to allow places of worship to welcome up to 250 people. The premier is also permitting all high school students in red zones, such as Montreal, to go to class full time starting Monday.

“We were expecting a rise in the number of cases and we were expecting a higher percentage of cases of the U.K. variant,” Legault said after he received his dose of COVID-19 vaccine at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

Earlier this week, Legault said the province was resisting a third wave, but acknowledged Friday the province now appears to be at the beginning of one.

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

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.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • 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; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (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 had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • 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 the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

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

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though 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.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Mathieu Maheu-Giroux with the Institut national de sante publique du Quebec told a virtual news conference earlier Friday that recent modelling indicates the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants will soon compose more than 50 per cent of new COVID-19 infections in Quebec.

He said the models are based on the evidence that certain variants are about 40 per cent more transmissible compared to the strain originally dominant in the province. But a third wave will depend on how people and authorities handle the uptick in cases, Maheu-Giroux added.

“A third wave will depend on the measures, the decisions and the adhesion of the population to the recommendations of public health, of the decisions which are being made at the moment,” Maheu-Giroux, an epidemiologist at McGill University, said.

Dr. Gaston De Serres, an epidemiologist with the public health institute, said it’s clear the measures in place weren’t successful in stemming the progression of variants and there are signs Quebecers have let their guards down.

“The current trend will continue unless there is a tighter or better adherence to the precautions,” he said.

Institute experts note that vaccinating people 65 and older is expected to greatly reduce hospitalization and death rates, but warn that greater transmissibility and positivity rates in younger people will mean more serious consequences for those age cohorts.

Quebec reported a second consecutive day of more than 900 cases, with 950 new COVID-19 infections and seven more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one in the past 24 hours.

Some regions are seeing rising case counts linked to variants. In the Bas-St-Laurent area, all primary and secondary students in the Kamouraska – Riviere-du-Loup school district will switch to virtual learning until at least April 5 after variants were identified in schools.

Legault said authorities will be keeping tabs on hospitalizations, which have been trending downward. He also implored the population to avoid gatherings and follow public health rules.

On Friday, health authorities reported that hospitalizations dropped by 15, to 481, and 115 people were in intensive care, a drop of two. The province administered a new high of 54,951 doses of COVID-19 vaccine Thursday, for a total of 1,121,958 doses since the campaign began.

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