What is a variant?

COVID-19 is the disease that is caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV2 or the virus).

During the infection process, the COVID-19 virus enters cells and tricks them into making copies of the virus’s genetic information. This genetic information is like a building plan. Using this building plan, new viruses grow and go on to infect other cells. COVID-19 symptoms appear and then worsen as more and more cells become infected.

Virus variants happen as part of this copying process. Just like in any other copying process, you sometimes get a less than perfect copy.

When that happens, there are three general outcomes:

1) Nothing really changes – the virus is essentially the same.

2) A mistake occurs in the copy which is fatal to the virus. We rejoice! That version of the virus is no more.

3) A mistake occurs in the copy that provides an advantage to that version of the virus. This means we now have a variant of concern.

Why are variants of concern a problem?

An epidemic (or globally a pandemic) is when a disease affects a large number of people. This usually means that health care systems are not able to control the spread of the virus and the virus is showing up in the community.

To end the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be able to control the spread of COVID-19.  Variants of concern are a huge problem as they threaten our ability to control the spread of COVID-19.

Variants become a concern when they change how the disease works. That could mean:   

  • A change in the severity of the disease
  • A change in treatment options for the disease
  • A change in how easily the disease can spread, including in previously resistant populations
  • A change in how we can test for the disease

Currently, there are 5 identified variants of concern circulating in Canada:

  • B.1.1.7 (Alpha)
  • B.1.351 (Beta)
  • P.1 (Gamma)
  • B.1.617.2 (Delta)
  • B.1.1.529 (Omicron) and BA lineages

New information about how easily these variants might be transmitted and the effectiveness of currently authorized vaccines is continuously being updated on the Public Health Agency of Canada website.

Regardless of the strain or variant of COVID-19, the advice to control the spread has remained the same. 

If we want to stop new variants from emerging, then we need to control (and ideally stop) infections from spreading. We can do so by using the same public health methods that we have employed throughout the pandemic:

  • Stay home.
  • Keep physically distant (2 metres) from others when you cannot stay home.
  • Wear a mask to reduce spread and protect your airways and membranes (eyes, mouth, nose).
  • Practice healthy hand hygiene.
  • Consult a healthcare provider about the correct vaccination strategy for you.

What should CUPE locals do?

  • Health and safety practices must evolve along with the virus. Changes in the virus can impact risk, particularly regarding the likelihood of exposure (transmissibility) and the severity of exposure (the seriousness of the illness it causes). An increase in risk should lead to a corresponding increase in preventative measures. 
  • Workplace assessments have long assumed that contact/droplets precautions are the most important method of COVID-19 transmission. However, there is sufficient scientific evidence to support aerosol transmission. Since the new variants of concern appear to spread more easily, pandemic control measures must address the risk of aerosol transmission from the source, along the path, and at the worker, using the hierarchy of controls. For more information, tools and resources please navigate to the CUPE Health and Safety COVID-19 site.
  • CUPE locals should also review their pandemic response plan with their Joint Health and Safety Committees. Our Health and Safety website hosts many tools to assist you in this work, including a checklist tool.
  • Remember: variants will continue to emerge as long as there are areas of the world where the virus is spreading uncontrolled. As such, it is important to support the international solidarity movement around vaccine accessVaccines should be shared with every person, regardless of location on the globe. It is through solidarity efforts like these that we will see COVID-19 curbed in Canada and the rest of the world. CUPE’s Health and Safety Branch encourages CUPE locals to lend their voices in support of a #PeoplesVaccine.