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EDITORIAL: Variant wild card should trigger pandemic pivot

The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry delivers an update on COVID-19 in B.C.
British Columbia’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, delivers an update on COVID-19. — Contributed photo/Government of B.C.

Canadian governments have to start treating the COVID-19 variants essentially as a different disease than the original virus — because their spread is different, their effects are different and their severity is different, so taking the same approaches as earlier in the pandemic just won’t work.

Some governments have pivoted well; at this point, it looks like a sudden and severe lockdown in Newfoundland and Labrador stopped a burgeoning outbreak of the B.1.1.7 variant completely — the variant was already spreading fast when it was identified, as that variant has been found to do, generating hundreds of infections, but the shutdown nipped things in the bud.

The problem is, even this set of variants is unlikely to be the last — or even, for that matter, the most severe.

Other provinces haven’t been as successful. British Columbia is now struggling with an outbreak of the P1 variant, which is believed to have originally developed out of an explosion of cases in Manaus, Brazil. During the first wave of the pandemic, B.C. did well in bringing things under control. On Thursday, B.C. health officials announced that there were more than 11,600 close contacts of individuals infected by COVID-19 generally, and that infection numbers are going to climb — including variants.

The province hopes it can contain the portion of those cases that are the P1 variant.

The problem is, even this set of variants is unlikely to be the last — or even, for that matter, the most severe. Everywhere that the virus is booming offers the opportunity for the development of mutated viruses, with the chance of a different mutation virtually every time the virus replicates.

Hospitals in Tokyo, for example are seeing a rise in a new variant — the E484K variant, nicknamed “EEK” — which is known to reduce COVID-19 protection by current vaccines.

The disturbing part is that there are portions of the world’s population, including people in Canada, who plan to forego the variety of COVID-19 vaccines altogether, meaning the petri dish of potential mutations will trundle on, albeit potentially at a slower rate as the number of vaccinated people grows.

What can we do?

Well, when governments change directions on how they deal with virus spread, we should pay attention — rather than taking the approach of looking backwards. If governments suggest staying within your family bubble even outdoors, we probably shouldn’t say, “But six months ago, you said…”

The hard part about that equation is something that might become very personal to you. As vaccines spread slowly across the country, different governments may have to look at how the virus is spreading — and through what parts of their populations — and change the order of vaccinations accordingly.

It’s an evolving situation with an evolving group of varieties of the COVID-19 virus.

Your place in line may change, for the good of the whole. And plenty of other things may yet change, too. Just the way the virus is changing.

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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