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COVID vaccines in a race against variants, says OMA official

'Over the course of the next three to six months I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about other variants that pop up,' says doctor
2021-03-17 Dr. Samantha Hill crop
Dr. Samantha Hill is president of the Ontario Medical Association.

Ongoing vaccinations against COVID-19 is expected to be a game changer, but the president of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) says it’s a race between the vaccine and the variants.

The variants that have dominated COVID cases in Simcoe-Muskoka present the risk of quickly spreading, infecting more people and putting further pressure on the health-care system, said Dr. Samantha Hill.

A cardiac surgeon in Toronto, Hill said there are indications that mutations of COVID-19 result in increased risks in different areas. 

“Variants is normal virus behaviour. Viruses mutate and the more they spread the more they have the opportunity to mutate,” she said. “Over the course of the next three to six months, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about other variants that pop up. And each variant that pops up will have what we call a survival advantage.”

That advantage would be something that allows it to spread more than earlier versions, eventually taking over. The fact that they’re increasing, dominating COVID-19 infections in Barrie and on the cusp of doing the same provincially isn’t a surprise, Hill said.

The concern is they seem to be more infectious than previous ones, can be asymptomatic longer and therefore spread faster.

“The concern from the health-care perspective about that is of course anything that increases the infection rate, increases the number of cases that are severe and increases the number of cases that have terrible outcomes or have to be hospitalized,” she said.

“It’s been a year of balancing the system with the people because if the health-care system collapses we can’t treat things as basic as high blood pressure or heart attacks and that is its own catastrophic outcome of COVID,” Hill added. “Seeing the virus come out that is more contagious has the profession acutely aware and watching what is happening.”

The worst-case projections have been avoided during the past year, which she said is credited to people taking the necessary precautions to mitigate them.

The hope now is that the wider rollout of vaccines will outpace the growth of COVID-19 infections and all its variants.

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton and chair of the OMA Section on Infectious Diseases, explained that a mutation is contained within all three variants.

“This 501 mutation may increase the ability to infect people,” he said during a call with media on Tuesday.

That could, in turn, lead to explosive growth as seen in England in December as well as at Barrie’s Roberta Place long-term care facility earlier this year.

The mechanism, Chagla added, is not yet very clear, but it could lead to the virus sticking to the respiratory tract more.

The viral load  which is the amount of infection people shed  is much higher with the variants.

“It just makes it much easier to infect from person to person to person,” he said.

The B.1.351 (South African) variant and the P.1 (Brazilian) variant have another mutation that resides where antibodies bind.

“There is a concern here particularly as this starts spreading, that you not only see more people getting COVID-19, but those who were naturally immune… it may break through and cause people to develop COVID-19,” Chagla said.

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About the Author: Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative

Marg. Buineman is an award-winning journalist covering justice issues and human interest stories for BarrieToday.
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