As new variants of the novel coronavirus pop up around the globe, a team from the World Health Organization is back where it all began -- in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first started more than a year ago.
The delegation was greeted by security staff in full protective gear on Thursday before heading into a 14-day quarantine in order to start their mission.
“It's extremely important that we understand the origin of the virus, not only for scientific purposes, but also to reduce the risk of any future outbreaks,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesperson for the WHO.
But even as these scientists prepare to probe the origins of the novel coronavirus, there are new concerns taking the spotlight.
Three variants of the original novel coronavirus are turning up in as many as 50 countries, often accompanied by steep rises in hospitalizations and deaths.
WHO officials held an emergency meeting this week to discuss the new threats, with a report due Friday on the variants.
The first of these new variants emerged in the U.K. in September, and started becoming more widespread in December, when numerous countries — including Canada — announced bans on flights to or from the U.K.
Canada’s ban expired last week.
Another variant that was discovered recently is from South Africa. A third variant has been identified as coming out of Brazil.
Catalina Lopez-Correa, executive director of the Canadian COVID Genomics Network, told CTV News that these variants are a concern.
“[It’s] been observed they are spreading faster, they have a higher degree of transmissibility,” she said, adding that as of yet, they do not seem to be “associated with more severe disease.”
There is still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the new variants. In WHO’s most recent weekly epidemiological update, they reported that the U.K. variant has been detected in 50 countries, while the variant that emerged in South Africa in December has been found in 20 countries, including Australia, France and the U.K.
Early research on the South Africa variant suggests that it could be almost twice as transmissible as the original virus.
WHO noted in their epidemiological report that in South Africa, “the observed rapid increases in case numbers has placed health systems under pressure.”
The U.K. has put restrictions on travellers from South America and Portugal this week because of the new variants.
The third variant was detected by Japanese authorities in four travellers from Brazil last week. It’s unknown yet whether this variant has the high level of infectiousness that has been seen in the other two variants, but preliminary research suggests it emerged in the Amazon region in northern Brazil, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
The Brazil variant has 12 mutations to the spike protein, according to WHO, some of which bear similarity to other variants, “which may impact transmissibility and host immune response.”
In Canada, the U.K. variant has already been detected, and scientists are hunting signs that the other variants may be spreading here as well.
The South African Variant was detected in Alberta last week, and B.C. announced Thursday that they have identified a case of the variant in the province.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, Minister of Health, issued a joint statement about the case, stating that the person involved is in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and has not recently travelled.
“An investigation is ongoing,” the statement said.
The worry is that some variants may evade control by vaccines. The two vaccines currently being distributed in Canada were both approved before any variants of the novel coronavirus were discovered in Canada.
There is no evidence that the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines will not work on variants, but the fear is not unfounded, according to Dr. Andrew McArthur, an associate professor at McMaster University and a member of the Ontario Rapid Response Genomics Coalition for COVID-19.
“It is possible that there is a variant floating around in patients out there that does not respond to the vaccine -- [where] the immune response the vaccine elicits doesn't work for that infection, and they can now infect other people, and you get another wave that has that no response to the vaccine,” he said.
Right now, studies suggest the vaccines we have will work, with scientists quickly developing second generation vaccines to protect against these new variants just in case.
“We are in unprecedented times with this pandemic, with this virus, with the variants,” Lopez-Correa said.
“We're actually now basically seeing biology and evolution of a virus in real time, day by day, as we speak.”
While scientists work to uncover clues to the virus’ origins in Wuhan, the crucial message remains that this a respiratory virus that can be controlled — with measures such as masks, physical distancing, and limiting exposure to others, particularly indoors, still making up our best protection.