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The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is prepared at a vaccination clinic in Montreal on March 15, 2021.ANDREJ IVANOV/Reuters

Health officials are launching a vaccination blitz targeting the parents of children living in two Montreal neighbourhoods considered hot spots for the community transmission of the B.1.1.7 novel coronavirus variant.

Montreal public health director Dr. Mylene Drouin says the vaccination pilot project begins Monday in two neighbourhoods that account for 26 per cent of cases in the city involving mutations of the virus.

“What we’ve seen in Montreal is that we have more and more variants, but also what we’ve seen is we have a concentration of variants in specific sectors,” Drouin told a news conference Thursday, referring to Cote-St-Luc and Plamondon.

Drouin said 86 per cent of cases in Cote St-Luc are tied to outbreaks in daycares or schools, which she says indicates a pattern of transmission.

“We do have variants in other territories, but with our suppressive strategy and a good control of outbreaks, we are not seeing community transmission in other neighbourhoods,” she said.

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

The vaccination blitz is aimed at parents of children in daycares and schools, but Drouin said the program could extend to teachers and daycare educators in those two sectors. She said because children can’t be vaccinated, officials expect outbreaks to continue among that population.

“What we will evaluate is if we are able to reduce the attack rate in households and if we can reduce the spreading of the virus to other territories,” Drouin said.

The number of confirmed variant cases in the province remained at 541 Thursday, with 2,548 presumptive cases. Montreal has 327 confirmed variant cases, mostly of the more contagious B.1.1.7 mutation first identified in the United Kingdom.

On Thursday, Quebec reported 702 new COVID-19 infections and surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. Health officials reported seven more deaths attributed to the virus and a 13-patient drop in hospitalizations, for a total of 519. Officials said 101 people were in intensive care, a drop of six.

The province said it administered 26,225 vaccine doses Wednesday, for a total of 832,469, representing about 9.8 per cent of the population. Health Minister Christian Dube is expected to receive his vaccine later Thursday in Montreal.

Quebec has reported a total of 300,152 infections and 10,576 deaths linked to the virus; the province has 6,883 active reported cases.

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