Ontario officials are reporting eight new cases of the UK variant of COVID-19 and they say that they have been unable to find a travel link with three of them, suggesting that the more contagious strain may already be circulating in the community.
Health Minister Christine Elliott confirmed the latest cases in a message posted to Twitter on Tuesday morning.
There have now been 14 individuals confirmed to have been infected by the UK variant in the province, though Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barabara Yaffe told reporters at a subsequent briefing that it is “very likely we have more we are not aware of” given that a relatively small proportion of samples are actually being examined for mutations.
“The variant is already here. We know the data shows it is probably at least 56 per cent more transmissible and at this point as I said with three of our cases we don’t have a travel history. If that is confirmed we have evidence then of community transmission and that is a very serious concern that the vaccine will not be able to address quickly enough,” she said.
Yaffe told reporters that Public Health Ontario is currently conducting genomic sequencing on about 500 to 600 samples per week to look for new variants.
Genomic sequencing involves analyzing an individual positive PCR test sample and mapping out its complex genetic profile.
Public Health Ontario has told CP24 that is currently focussed on testing samples “with a history of international travel or who have had contact with someone with a history of international travel” as well as samples “related to a known or suspected superspreading event.”
That, however, could change if the strain becomes more prevalent.
The new cases confirmed on Tuesday come as the Ford government releases new modelling, which suggests that COVID-19 cases in Ontario could double every 10 days by March if the more contagious strain takes route in the community.
Currently, cases are doubling every 35 to 40 days.
“A new variant could drive much higher case counts, ICU occupancy and mortality if community transmission occurs,” Epidemiologist Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province’s COVID-19 science table, warned. “The doubling time for cases could drop by more than two thirds and just to be clear this variant is already in Ontario. It is not a hypothetical. The variant is here; it is just depending now on how fast it spreads.”
Brown said that officials believe the UK variant is at least 56 per cent more contagious but he said that it is possible that number could be as high as 75 per cent.
He said that there are already a number of areas in the province experiencing a “very dramatic growth in cases” similar to what was seen in the United Kingdom as the strain started to spread this fall.
That, he said, could “suggest that we might already be seeing this new variant in some of these communities.”
He said that if the strain spreads within the community we will likely see a “scary almost vertical sort of curve” by the end of February with cases growing six to seven per cent per day.
That sort of case growth could, in turn, translate into approximately 40,000 new cases a day, according to the new modelling.
“This new variant is not more lethal but because it spreads so much more quickly once it gets out into the community there is no question that we will have more cases and more death,” Brown said. “People will die from the virus itself and from the overloaded health system that is unable to respond to their needs.”
Yaffe said that five of the new cases were all connected to a recent traveller from the United Kingdom. She said that public health officials are continuing to look for possible travel links with the three other cases.