Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says the new variant of COVID-19, which has prompted many countries to implement travel restrictions against the United Kingdom, has not yet been identified in Canada.
Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has said it is analyzing known cases to determine whether the new strain, which research suggests is significantly more transmissible than the variant currently dominant in Canada, is already in the country.
“Obviously it’s an evolving situation,” Tam said. “We’ve been very active in the last couple of days and activated all the scientific networks in Canada.”
Tam made the remarks during an update on Canada’s fight against COVID-19 Tuesday.
She said PHAC had to date looked at over 25,000 sequences of the virus already collected in Canada, saying these were the highest quality samples, and was working to determine the quality of other samples.
PHAC had also linked with several provincial authorities who were also sequencing existing samples, noting they had not detected the variant.
The ongoing analysis would target high-probability samples, Tam said, such as from people who had recently travelled.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo were present at the briefing.
Moderna decision coming ‘very soon’: Hajdu
At the briefing, Hajdu told reporters that Health Canada now has all the data it needs in order to complete its review of the Moderna vaccine. The government previously said the country could receive 168,000 doses of the vaccine by year’s end.
“My understanding is that decision will be very soon,” Hajdu said, noting she couldn’t speak for the independent regulators.
The appearance of the new variant of COVID-19 has sparked concern that it may reduce the efficacy of existing vaccines.
But Tam said the current expert research suggests it is unlikely to have a significant effect on the current or soon-to-be-approved vaccines.
“Right now, we remain optimistic on that front,” she said. Tam said it was important to work with the vaccine manufacturers and international partners — particularly the United Kingdom, which is also rolling out the Pfizer vaccine — in order to determine the potential effect of the new variant.
The chief executive of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, said Tuesday he was confident his company’s vaccine would work against the new variant of COVID-19, but that studies are needed to prove it.
Tam also warned that Canada was currently on track for a strong resurgence of the virus over the next several months. She pointed to disturbing trends in cases, hospitalizations and mortality, and urged Canadians to continue to follow public health guidelines.
“This is a perilous time,” she said.
Tam noted that there are again outbreaks in long-term care homes, and that unlike the first wave of the pandemic in the spring, the virus was also reaching remote communities.
“With the widespread resurgence right now, there’s a much more broad impact across all areas of Canada, and you can see the impact in Nunavut,” Tam said. Nunavut reported its first two deaths related to COVID-19 on Sunday.
“And we’re only getting into the winter,” she said.
She said the exhaustion of health-care workers, and ordinary Canadians, was one reason the next few months would be so difficult.
As of 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Canada had recorded a total of 520,045 cases of COVID-19, and a CBC News tally of deaths stood at 14,402. Ontario and Quebec each recorded more than 2,000 new cases today.
Blair pushes back on border concerns
Ministers also sought to counter criticism on their handling of border restrictions, brought on by the announcement of the three day ban on flights from the United Kingdom.
“Unfortunately over the past few days we’ve heard a number of comments which frankly are an unfortunate misrepresentation of what is actually happening at our borders,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said.
He described the screening and quarantine measures in place since the spring and argued Canada has been among the most aggressive countries in controlling entry during the pandemic.
“We have not been slow and not been unresponsive to the concerns that Canadians have,” Blair said.
The remarks follow harsh criticism from Ontario Premier Doug Ford on both Monday and Tuesday. Ford described the border as a “sieve” and argued for a more effective testing system at airports across the country.
Ford on Tuesday said he was asking the federal government to implement a requirement for pre-departure tests for people trying to come to Canada.
Blair said international travel was the source of just 1.8 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Canada throughout the pandemic.
“What we’re seeing now is that the biggest problem in Canada is community transmission inside Canada, it’s not really the importation of cases,” said Njoo.