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First South African COVID-19 variant found in B.C.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has identified the province’s first case of the South African variant of the coronavirus, announced provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry Thursday.
COVID-19 vaccine
A senior male is about to receive a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine. It's not yet clear what affect currently approved vaccines will have on the South African variant of the coronavirus. - Photograph via Getty Images

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has identified the province’s first case of the South African variant of the coronavirus, announced provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry Thursday. 

The person identified with the coronavirus variant is not known to have travelled or have had contact with other travellers.

“It is of course concerning that we don’t know where this arose,” said Henry. 

Canada’s first case of the South African variant — known as 501.V2 — was isolated in Alberta last week. It is more infectious than the original COVID-19 variant and has rapidly become dominant in South Africa's coastal areas. There have also been concerns among experts in the United Kingdom that vaccines may not be effective against it.

In addition, Henry noted full-genome sequencing of positive cases across the province has uncovered four cases of another variant from the United Kingdom, three of which are linked to one specific traveller. 

The isolation of the four cases of the U.K. variant come just a few weeks after many countries banned travel from the U.K. following the discovery of another variant of the virus around London and southeastern England, which has been blamed for a sharp rise in new coronavirus infections and deaths related to COVID-19.

Responding to questions from reporters Thursday, Henry said she has no plans to issue a public health order restricting travel, though she did liken the arrival of the two new variants to this time last year when travellers first started bringing the coronavirus to the province from countries like China, Iran and the U.S.

"It does show that we are connected," said Henry. "We are not by any means out of the woods."

WHAT IS THE SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT?

The South African government first announced it had detected a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus Dec. 18. By then, it was already spreading rapidly across three provinces in the country. According to the World Health Organization, it has largely replaced other coronavirus variants circulating across large swaths of the country.

In an interview with South African infectious disease physician Salim Abdool Karim published Thursday, editors at the New England Journal of Medicine questioned the doctor on its impact on the country’s population.

Where over the early months of the pandemic, Karim was seeing one to two mutations a month, that jumped to nearly two dozen in November. Three of those mutations were found in the characteristic spike proteins of the coronavirus, leading the virus to bind more deeply with human cells. 

In the population, that meant the time it took to reach 100,000 cases was 50% faster in the second wave than the first, said Karim, who has been central to efforts to controlling the virus in South Africa.

“It’s really about the speed with which the cases have increased and the burden they’ve placed on hospitals,” Karim told the esteemed medical journal. “Hospitals are straining.”

Another concern is that the South African strain is more adept at provoking “immune escape,” which increases the risk that previously infected people get infected again.

And on the vaccine front, there’s currently no evidence to show that approved vaccines have the ability to neutralize the South African variant, though studies are underway, said the physician.

Last week, U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC’s program “Today” the South African variant was a “very significant problem” and “even more of a problem than the U.K. variant” because its mutations make it more transmissible. 

OTHER CORONAVIRUS VARIANTS

On Thursday, authorities in the United Kingdom announced the country would ban travel from the whole of South America and Portugal amid concerns over yet another variant of the coronavirus in Brazil.

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that as of 4 a.m. Friday, arrivals from more than a dozen countries, including Argentina, Chile and Peru, will be halted “following evidence of a new variant in Brazil.” Outside South America, the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa and Panama in Central America were also slapped with travel bans.

In Nigeria, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has noted another variant has been isolated, though it notes it has seen no evidence the variant is more transmissible or deadlier.

— With files from the Canadian Press