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European Council President Charles Michel, top of screen, takes part in an EU summit via video conference link, on Feb. 25, 2021.Olivier Hoslet/The Associated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Union must prepare to vaccinate for new COVID-19 variants over the coming years after EU leaders discussed ways of stepping up inoculations and salvaging businesses, including tourism.

The 27 EU leaders agreed to keep “tight restrictions” on public life and free movement in place as the bloc races against the emergence of new variants that may hamper an economic rebound.

“We have to prepare for a situation where we have to continuously vaccinate for a longer period of time, maybe over years, due to new coronavirus variants, akin to the situation we know from the flu,” Merkel said.

The executive European Commission told the virtual leaders’ gathering that 51.5 million doses of vaccines had so far been delivered to the EU and 29.17 million administered, with about 5 per cent of citizens having had their first dose, according to figures seen by Reuters.

The Commission and EU countries have come under fire for missteps in their joint inoculation program and a stuttering rollout of shots that has lagged badly behind Israel, Britain and the United States.

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

Summit chairman Charles Michel said the bloc wanted “more predictability and transparency” from pharmaceutical companies that failed to deliver contracted vaccine volumes, putting at risk the EU’s target of inoculating 70 per cent of its adult population by the end of the summer.

VACCINE CERTIFICATES

After the pandemic killed more than 900,000 people in Europe and thrust it into its worst-ever recession, EU leaders agreed to advance work on vaccine certificates, which southern countries hope will unlock tourism this summer.

But others, including France and Germany, are skeptical. Merkel said technical work on that should be completed by the summer.

As the EU treads a fine line between restrictions to stop the spread of infections and keeping borders open to ensure the smooth flow of goods and services across the single market, Merkel said she did not expect to impose tighter border restrictions on the French Moselle region for now.

Although infection rates are heading down in about 20 EU member states, there are concerns about fresh spikes as the coronavirus variant first detected in Britain spreads rapidly.

The head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the British variant was present in 26 of the EU’s 27 countries, the South African variant in 14 and Brazilian in seven nations.

“There is growing COVID fatigue among our citizens … But we should not let up now. Not only does the situation remain serious in many parts of Europe but we must also watch for the new variants that are spreading,” she said.

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.

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