As case numbers drop in Canada, three variants of concern threaten to undo much of the work done by people following strict public health guidelines as they are more transmissible and can impact developed antibodies.

These variants go by many names, from the location of their discovery to letters and numbers. In an effort to avoid stigmatizing entire cities and countries where these variants first emerged, an effort has been made to rename them.

What was initially the “U.K. variant” or “Kent variant” is now commonly B.1.1.7. Originally the “South African variant” now dons the name B.1.351, and the variant found in Brazil goes by P.1.

The variants are divided into two lineages, A and B. A viruses share two nucleotides that differ from B viruses. To be designated as a new lineage, it must show evolution from either an A or B virus, and that other lineages could further evolve from it.

Names like P.1 come into play when more than three sublevels are evident. The variant P.1 was also named B.1.1.28.1, which has four sublevels. This was done in an effort to prevent variant names from becoming increasingly long.

There is currently no global naming system for COVID-19 variants the way there is for the seasonal flu.

Here’s what you need to know about each variant.

B.1.1.7:

Variant B.1.1.7 was first discovered in the U.K. in December 2020. It is believed to be the first identified variant of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

B.1.1.7 has multiple mutations to the spike protein that allows it to bind and spread more easily than the original form of the virus. After a study conducted by U.K. scientists indicated that this variant could be associated with higher risk of death, further studies are underway to confirm that finding and to determine whether it will have any impact on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

According to the Center for Disease Control, this variant has shown to be approximately 50 per cent more transmissible.

Since this variant was first detected in Canada on Dec. 28, 2020, it has become the dominant variant nationwide. B.1.1.7 is currently most prevalent in Ontario and Alberta, with 768 cases across the country.

B.1.351:

Variant B.1.351 was first discovered in South Africa and has since spread quickly around the globe.

Epidemiologists have said that B.1.351 is 50 per cent more contagious than other variants of the virus. There is no evidence that it causes more severe disease.

Similar to the B.1.1.7 variant, this one has multiple mutations to the spike protein. There are concerns that one of these mutations impacts the efficacy of some COVID-19 vaccines. A study indicates that the B.1.351 variant may reduce antibody resistance in the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. Moderna and AstraZeneca have shown similar results with the B.1.351 vaccine.

As of Feb. 22, Canada has 40 cases of the B.1.351 variant with most cases in Ontario.

P.1:

The P.1 variant was first identified in Brazil. It is responsible for a deadly outbreak in Manaus, Brazil, a city already hard hit by the virus in the fall of 2020.

This variant has three mutations to the spike protein. It is believed that this variant can impact antibodies from previous infection causing re-infection of COVID-19 in patients who have already had the virus.

As of Feb. 22, there is one case of the P.1 variant in Canada, in the province of Ontario.

B.1.525

The B.1.525 has similarities with both the B.1.351 variant and the B.1.1.7 variant. It was originally found in Nigeria.

This variant has a mutation on the spike protein that could allow it to spread and attach to cells in the body more easily. It could also help it evade antibodies created by previously having the virus or having had the vaccine.

As of Feb. 22, only British Columbia has reported any cases of B.1.525.