COVID-19 variants are changing the pandemic landscape in Canada

April 27, 2021

With case numbers, hospitalizations, and ICU admissions all up, Canada’s third wave is proving more dangerous than at any other point since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

It’s beginning to feel as though it’s the twelfth round of a boxing match and COVID-19 is bounce-stepping on fresh legs.

There is a positive, though: one thing all pandemics share is, eventually, they end. Canada will make it through this. It’s not a question of if, but rather, when.

The Beat invited Dr. Peter Liu, chief scientific officer and vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute (UOHI), to share his perspective on the pandemic in Canada.

Dr. Liu is the UOHI’s 2020 recipient of the Global Achievement Award, an accolade honouring his leadership in advancing the world’s understanding of the cardiovascular implications of COVID-19.

Dr. Liu appeals to Canadians and heart patients to take every precaution necessary to protect themselves. He encourages Canadians to be proactive about getting vaccinated and warns against “vaccine shopping,” a phenomenon whereby people delay vaccination until they can get their vaccine of choice.   

What follows is a summarized version of our conversation.

The Beat: Dr. Liu, what’s your take on the pandemic situation in Canada?
Dr. Peter Liu:
Things are truly escaping our control. The U.S. mortality rates are dropping dramatically, a result of the States’ rapid vaccination rollout. The spread of the variants in the U.S. is not taking off the same way as it is here in Canada. We’ve been hit hard with variants. Certainly, in Ontario, B.C., and Quebec, the variants are spreading uncontrolled.

Tell us about this new strain of virus, B.1.1.7. How is this variant different from COVID-19?
B.1.1.7 is sometimes referred to as the UK variant. It originated in the UK at a time when the country was facing a major wave of infections. The variant turns out to be much more transmissible than the original SARS-COV-2 strain of the virus. It also causes more severe disease, prolonged ICU stays, and it can infect younger people. There is data to suggest the B.1.1.7 strain is at least 50% more potent. When you get infected, you can get very sick. A double whammy!

How does the B.1.1.7 virus work? How does it spread so easily?
The B.1.1.7 variant has acquired an advantageous mutation in the spike protein of the coronavirus. It is the spike that distinguishes the coronavirus virus from other viruses. The spike protein is the key the virus uses to enter a human cell. In the same way a robber might use tools to break into your home, COVID-19 uses tools to take over our cells and multiply. Whereas before, COVID-19 used a lockpick, the B.1.1.7 strain uses a much more sophisticated key. It can unlock and invade your cells much faster, and thus can propagate much more efficiently.

Does the vaccine provide sufficient protection against the B.1.1.7 variant?
Evidence so far suggests most of the available vaccines protect against the B.1.1.7 variant. The vaccines are somewhat less effective against the South African or the Brazilian variants. However, there is no question vaccines are still our best defence. When you have a large population of individuals who have only received a single dose of vaccine and others who are unvaccinated, you create the ideal training ground for the variants to thrive and adapt. In this situation, the virus learns how our defence systems work and evolves to circumvent those challenges.

What should we all be doing then to stop the spread?
Full vaccination is the only way to shut down virus transmission. People may be getting tired of staying at home and not being able to socialize, but there is much less wiggle room with the variants. The only way the UK regained control of its pandemic situation with B.1.1.7 was by instituting a prolonged and strict lockdown that lasted months, and by racing to get the population vaccinated. It is only now the UK is starting to reopen. Tough times call for tough measures. Half-measures leave us even more vulnerable. And there is no question we need to be getting more vaccines into arms quicker.

It’s important for Canadians not to go vaccine shopping, but rather to seize the opportunity to get any Health Canada-approved vaccine as soon as possible.

- Dr. Liu

Which vaccine is the right vaccine?
The data to date indicate all the approved vaccines are safe and protect against serious illness from COVID-19. It’s important for Canadians not to go vaccine shopping, but rather to seize the opportunity to get any Health Canada-approved vaccine as soon as possible. The longer you wait to receive a preferred vaccine–and the longer others do the same–the longer Canada must wait to achieve herd immunity. The best thing you can do for your health and the health of all Canadians is to get vaccinated as soon as one is available to you.*  

What about heart patients? Do you have a message for them?
It’s important for cardiac patients to keep healthy. Take extra caution during this time.  Go outdoors only for essential trips or daily exercises. If you are out, stay in wide open areas and practice physical distancing. Make sure you are maintaining your heart health, eat properly, avoid weight gain, manage your stress, and get plenty of sleep. Follow your treatment plan and keep taking your medication as prescribed. Keeping your heart healthy is one of the best defences against the virus. And finally, be proactive about getting your vaccine.

Dr. Peter Liu’s expertise and authority on the impact of COVID-19 on the cardiovascular system has been globally sought out by prestigious scientific journals and prominent mainstream media.

*Always seek the advice of your primary healthcare provider for any questions you may have regarding COVID-19 vaccination and your medical condition.