National Post (National Edition)
When it only takes `seconds' to become infected
How does one protect from COVID variants?
It could take only seconds to get infected with the U.K. variant of the COVID-19 virus.
Health officials across the country are warning Canadians of the potential for increased contagiousness of the variants, meaning they can spread more quickly and widely than the one we've been living with for the past year.
In Ontario, public health officials have warned anything other than a “transient” exposure to the U.K. variant — your hand momentarily touching that of a grocery store cashier as you receive a bag, or walking by an infected person in a hallway — counts as high risk.
There are, at this point, three variants that have been identified: the U.K. variant, first seen in the fall of 2020, a variant that first emerged in South Africa in December and, most recently, a variant from Brazil detected in early January. A case of the Brazil variant was identified in Toronto this past weekend.
Currently in Canada there are an estimated 320 cases of the U.K. variant, with more than 200 in Ontario and more than 70 in Alberta. The case counts for the other variants are much lower, with 18 cases of the South African variant and just the one case of the Brazilian. Ontario will now begin screening all positive cases of COVID for the variant genomes.
“We don't really have a (positive) handle on why they're more transmissible, so what aspect of general prevention is most important is not yet clear,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alberta.
Early evidence suggests the U.K. variant has mutated in a way that allows it to latch on to its human hosts more easily. Some estimates put that variant at around 50-per-cent more transmissible than the SARS-CoV-2 virus we have been dealing with for the past year.
It's possible they're deadlier, too, at least in the case of the U.K. variant, though that isn't yet well-established, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.
Another lingering question is whether or not vaccines currently being adopted around the world will actually help prevent illness or infections from these variants. The answer, at this point, is that efficacy appears to vary by vaccine.
So while we wait for vaccines, how are we supposed to fight against something that spreads so fast, so easily?
“I think what we have to keep in mind is, even though they may be more transmissible, the way they're transmitted is still the same — so it's still coughing, sneezing, those kinds of things,” said Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alberta. “The basic measures are still the things that are going to help to prevent transmission.”
That means lockdowns, social distancing, wearing masks — and vaccines. “Everyone would like the vaccine rollout to be much faster than it has been, because I do think that's going to go a long way in helping to prevent the spread of this variant,” Smith said. “What are we left with? Well, we're left with unfortunately having to do the same things that we've done over the last eight, 10, 12 months.”
Saxinger says broad measures, such as not being in contact with others, are likely to be the most effective. So, too, is using good masks, such as three-layer masks or standardized medical masks (not N95 masks, unless fitted — medical professionals are fitted for them).
“There's a lot of really cruddy masks, like the ones that are most comfortable to wear, are extremely breathable and not very good at filtering, and that's why they're more comfortable,” she said.
Regardless, it's not clear what will happen next with the variants. “It throws a wrench into the whole reopening plan a little bit,” Smith said.
Smith said there is “absolutely” potential for a “Canadian variant” to emerge — it could happen anywhere. There's no way to stop it, except by reducing the spread of infection, either through public health measures or vaccination.
“If we can actually decrease transmission, then we're going to decrease the ability for the virus to be replicating and therefore decreasing the chance that it's going to develop a mutation that is significant.”