Skip to main content
Welcome to
super saver spring
offer ends april 20
save over $140
save over 85%
$0.99
per week for 24 weeks
Welcome to
super saver spring
$0.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

People wear face masks as they walk along a street in Montreal on Feb. 21, 2021.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Question: Why are the new variants of the coronavirus so contagious and how can I protect myself from them?

Answer: The first thing you need to know is that the emergence of new variants is a normal and expected development.

It’s a process that happens when the virus commandeers the molecular machinery of an infected human cell to replicate itself. Tiny copying errors, or mutations, occasionally occur as 30,000 letters of RNA are assembled to reproduce the genetic code of the virus.

Story continues below advertisement

Many of these random changes have no discernable effect and may even be detrimental to the virus. But a few of them will provide some type of competitive advantage.

“This is evolution at work,” explains Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table. The mutations that increase the chances of a new variant spreading tend to keep getting passed along.

Scientists are still trying to determine how the latest variants differ from the original version of SARS-CoV-2, the official name of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Juni says the worrisome variants that were first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil all have mutations in the genes that produce spike proteins, the knobby protrusions that the virus uses to latch onto receptors on the surfaces of certain human cells.

He thinks these mutations enable the spike proteins “to fit more snugly” and create a “tighter fit” on the receptor, making the virus more likely to enter a human cell. This could mean “a low dose of the virus might be enough to infect the body.”

Each one of the variants may contain additional beneficial mutations that boost their odds of survival and propagation. The South African variant appears to be have some ability to evade the immune system’s antibodies, which makes certain vaccines less effective against it.

Overall, the new variants are roughly 40 per cent more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2.

Story continues below advertisement

“More mutations are coming – that’s natural. But this is not a reason to panic,” says Dr. Juni.

Pointing to the recently developed messenger-RNA vaccines, he notes that “we have new technology that will make it much easier to alter, or tweak, vaccines as new variants emerge.”

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

Even more importantly, people can protect themselves from infection by adhering to well-established precautionary measures such as wearing masks, frequent hand washing and physical distancing – keeping at least two metres apart.

“I know it sounds like a broken record, but we just need to follow the same guidelines that we have been doing,” says Dr. Rob Kozak, a scientist and clinical microbiologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

“The virus can’t hibernate or hide somewhere. It only exists if it keeps being transmitted to new hosts,” he adds. “So, we can stop it if we don’t become complacent and let down our guard.”

In the case of masks, they don’t necessarily need to be medical-grade. A three-layered fabric mask – which might include a disposable or washable filter – can block the transmission of the virus.

Story continues below advertisement

However, to be truly effective, a mask must be worn correctly – covering the nose and mouth with no gaps around the edges.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious-diseases physician in the United States, has publicly speculated that two masks might be better than one.

But many Canadian experts are still reluctant to embrace double-masking.

Dr. Janine McCready, an infectious-diseases physician at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, says some people might find that wearing two masks is hot and uncomfortable. “You may be touching your face more often to adjust the masks,” she adds.

If people really can’t find a good mask that fits, then they might consider doubling up, says Dr. McCready. But she suggests they should first explore some creative solutions. That could mean knotting the ear loops to make them shorter or using a clip to pull the loops together at the back of the head in order to tighten the seal around the face.

Although experts generally agree that basic safety procedures can block transmission of the virus, certain public-health measures may need to be revised to deal with the new and highly contagious variants.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. McCready points out that some public-health units have been using 15 minutes of exposure as a key measurement in their contact-tracing efforts.

“If you need less exposure to actually get sick from the virus, then maybe we should change the 15-minute threshold,” she says. “It is probably better to test and isolate more people to make sure we are controlling the spread.”

To prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, additional government interventions may be necessary to limit the number of new cases, says Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious-diseases specialist at Sinai Health and the University Health Network in Toronto.

“Providing paid sick leave is one way to reduce the rate of transmission,” says Dr. Morris. Simply put, infected essential workers can then afford to stay home so they don’t pass the illness on to others.

“These variants are concerning,” says Dr. Morris. “But we now know enough to be able to control them quite well. We just have to be smart about what we do.”

Paul Taylor is a former Patient Navigation Adviser at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Health Editor of The Globe and Mail. Find him on Twitter @epaultaylor and online at Sunnybrook’s Your Health Matters.

Story continues below advertisement

Sign up for the weekly Health & Wellness newsletter, your source for nutrition news, fitness tips and wellness advice.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies