The Standard (St. Catharines)

Variant behind India outbreak found in Niagara

- GORD HOWARD ALLAN BENNER

At least one COVID-19 case in Niagara has been linked to the B.1.617 variant that’s behind the massive coronaviru­s spread in India.

It’s significan­t — but just how significan­t isn’t clear yet, say two of Niagara’s top doctors.

New variants detected in Niagara are “at least as transmissi­ble” as the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the U.K., the first one found here, said Dr. Karim Ali, director of the division of infectious diseases and antimicrob­ial stewardshi­p program for Niagara Health.

“We just don’t know whether it’s more deadly or not,” he said of the B.1.617 variant.

Of the 1,831 active COVID-19 cases in Niagara Sunday, variants account for at least 65 per cent and possibly more than 70 per cent, according to Niagara Region Public Health.

“There’s a handful of these (B.1.617) cases that have been identified across the country,” said Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji. “The one in Niagara is travel-related, and I think that highlights some of the risks when people are travelling, of getting infected with other versions of COVID-19 and bringing it back.”

Variants generally are considered more infectious and can lead to more severe illness than the original coronaviru­s strain.

In Niagara, 2,815 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected, according to public health.

There has been one case each of the P.1 variant first discovered in Brazil and B.1.617 variant found, 70 more thought to be one or the other, plus another 873 suspected variant cases.

So far, the U.s.-based Centers for Disease Control has labelled the B.1.617 a variant of interest, rather than a variant of concern.

“It might be spreading very widely in India because it spreads more easily than other versions of the virus, but it might also just spread more widely because it happened to be the one that was around when things opened up (in India),” Hirji said.

“I think we still don’t know whether it’s more dangerous or a more concerning variant.”

Ali said when a virus “runs rampant in the community, you will start to see variants.”

“That’s par for the course for the virus.”

But despite the crisis in India, he said there are other factors at play in addition to the B.1.617 variant.

There, and to some extent in neighbouri­ng Pakistan where he has family, he said, it’s a humanitari­an crisis because people are becoming sicker in a shorter period of time.

The crisis has overwhelme­d the health system, creating a shortage of hospital beds and supplies, including oxygen and ventilator­s.

“You can’t compare what’s happening in India to here,” Ali said.

“India produces the largest amount of vaccine in the world, yet they cannot vaccinate their own people.

“Through the COVID-19 vaccine alliance (COVAX), Canada has been called out by (the World Health Organizati­on) because Canada got vaccine from them and those vaccines were slated to be given to lowerincom­e countries.”

Ali was the doctor at Niagara Health who administer­ed the first vaccinatio­n to a front-line health-care worker when its clinic opened in January.

While he was doing it, he said, he got a call from a family member in Pakistan.

“My dad was being taken to the hospital at that time,” he said, adding his father has since recovered from the coronaviru­s.

But the inequity in care haunts him.

“It’s a very awful feeling to be in this,” said Ali.

“They don’t have access to vaccines in India that they make, yet here people are saying, ‘I’m going to wait for this, I’m going to wait for more data about vaccines.’

“Time and again, we keep seeing transmissi­on happening while people are waiting for a better vaccine.”

Gord Howard is a St. Catharines­based reporter with the Standard. Reach him via email: gord.howard@niagaradai­lies.com Allan Benner is a St. Catharines­based reporter with the Standard. Reach him via email: allan.benner@niagaradai­lies.com

 ?? JULIE JOCSAK
TORSTAR FILE PHOTO ?? Dr. Karim Ali says he is haunted by the inequity of COVID-19 vaccines in India and Pakistan compared to countries such as Canada.
JULIE JOCSAK TORSTAR FILE PHOTO Dr. Karim Ali says he is haunted by the inequity of COVID-19 vaccines in India and Pakistan compared to countries such as Canada.

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