They seem to spread faster and easier. New COVID-19 variants are being discovered all over the world, and some have made their way to Canada.

“This isn’t a surprise; it's to be expected. It’s what viruses do,” says infectious disease specialist, Dr. Curtis Cooper.

The word "variant" seems to be the new buzzword in this pandemic. 

But what does that actually mean? What is a "variant"?

“With any virus, whenever it’s makes new copies of itself, there’s always some errors that are introduced in its genetic makeup,” says Cooper. “Every once in a while, there’s a mutation that gives the virus some sort of survival advantage and that gives it a better chance of expanding and becoming the dominant strain.”

There are currently two variants in Canada, the B.1.1.7 UK variant and more recently, the B.1.351 South African variant.

“Provinces have reported over 135 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and at least 30 cases of the B.1.351 variant,” says Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam. 

“The one in the UK has an easier job jumping from person to person,” says Cooper. “So, it's more transmissible. And there is now some evidence that it may lead to more severe infection.”

Researchers have found that the UK variant is up to 70 per cent more transmissible.

The first case of the South African variant in Ontario was reported Monday, and research shows it is also more contagious. It is not known whether it is more severe.

Research also shows that although there is a mutation in the variants, the COVID-19 vaccine may still help protect against them.

“There may be subtle differences as far of the level of protection. But nothing at this point makes me conclude that the vaccine will not provide at least some benefit,” says Cooper. 

In the last two days, Ottawa has reported lower than usual numbers of COVID-19 cases, but that doesn’t mean we are out of the second wave just yet.

“Too early at this point to declare victory,” says Cooper. “I think it tells us that the fairly restrictive rules that we’ve all been asked to live under are having an effect.”

Even though these new variants might be more contagious, Dr. Cooper says continuing to follow public health rules can still prevent them from spreading and becoming dominant.