Microbiologist Marielle Bedotto-Buffet prepares a sample at the University Hospital Institute for Infectious Diseases in Marseille, southern France, Wednesday Jan. 13, 2021, to study the highly contagious COVID-19 variant that has been discovered in the UK. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Also known as the COVID-19 UK variant, B.1.1.7. has been confirmed in at least one positive infection in the Sudbury and Manitoulin Districts, with three others suspected.

Public Health Sudbury & Districts made the announcement in a news release Friday morning after first being informed that a highly-transmissible strain of the COVID-19 variant was detected in the area on Jan. 24.

The individual has travelled internationally, which triggered the extra variant screening that is completed in two parts. The first to identify a mutation of COVID-19, the second uses genome sequencing to determine the exact strain.

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, the medical officer of health for the Sudbury and Manitoulin Districts, said the variant spreads in the same way but is much more infectious.

"This can result in more cases, which means that more people could become seriously ill, while others may lose their lives," Sutcliffe said. "The key message to slow the spread as long as possible is that we must ramp up our prevention measures and truly limit or even avoid our contact with people outside of our own household."

This as the fourth week of the Ontario-wide stay-at-home orders begins.

"Public health has been notified of three further possible cases in individuals in our area," the health unit said. "Two are individuals who had returned from international travel who were completing quarantine. The other is in an individual who was self-isolating as a contact of a known case of a COVID-19 variant of concern (VOC) in another public health unit jurisdiction. Further confirmatory sequencing of these three additional samples is underway."

Health officials said early evidence is showing the COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be effective against the B.1.1.7. variant.

The World Health Organization is discouraging the use of attaching countries to the names of various variants, such as U.K. and South African, to avoid perpetuating discrimination and negative connotations against those countries.

Despite the Ontario-wide lockdown that began on Dec. 26, northeastern Ontario has had 682 new infections of COVID-19 confirmed and 556 cases resolved, including 21 deaths since Jan. 11.

As of Thursday at 4 p.m., northeastern Ontario had 156 active cases of COVID-19 after eight new infections were confirmed and 27 cases resolved.

In the Sudbury and Manitoulin Districts, there are 56 active COVID-19 infections as of Thursday afternoon.