COVID-19 variant of interest vs. variant of concern: What does it mean?

A variant that appears to be wreaking havoc in India was detected in Canada on Wednesday, but experts say it’s too early to know how concerning this new version of the COVID-19 virus is.

The variant — named B.1.617 — has so far been classified as a “variant of interest” by the World Health Organization, rather than a “variant of concern,” the term attached to variants first detected in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa.

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist with the University of Ottawa, said Thursday that a variant of interest is one that is “suspected” to either be more contagious than the initial strain, cause more severe disease, or escape the protection offered by vaccines.

A variant of interest can become a variant of concern if more evidence emerges that it does one or more of those things, he added.

Deonandan said the variant first detected in India appears to be responsible for about 60 per cent of cases in the country’s most populated region, suggesting a higher transmissibility. But he said scientists still don’t know if the mutations on the variant cause more severe disease.

The variant has a double mutation on the spike protein gene, which our current COVID-19 vaccines target. But experts say there’s still no concrete evidence approved vaccines won’t work against it.

While some have dubbed the variant a “double mutant,” an infectious disease expert with McMaster University said that’s a misnomer that conjures up false images of a super virus.

Dr. Zain Chagla said earlier variants of concern don’t have a single mutation, but instead a set of them that change the virus in certain ways. Having two mutations on the spike protein doesn’t necessarily mean the variant is more dangerous than one that has a single mutation on that gene, he said.

The variant was first reported late last year, and while genomic sequencing suggests it is the dominant strain in India, the Indian government has not confirmed that.

India recorded nearly 300,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday alone, with 2,000 more deaths linked to the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2021.

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