Ontario health officials said Monday that the province’s first confirmed case of the so-called South African variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been detected in a person in Peel Region.

“Today I want to confirm that Ontario is going to report its first case of the so called B 1.351 or the South African variant of concern,” Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams said at a news conference.

In a statement, Peel Public Health said the variant was detected in a Mississauga man and that he is recovering at home.  

“The public health in Peel are continuing to investigate it, and are performing appropriate case and contact management,” Williams said. “Accordingly, we will continue to provide updates on this situation as the investigation evolves.”

Along with the U.K. variant (B.1.17), the South African variant is one of the so-called variants of concern; strains of COVID-19 thought to be more contagious than the regular strain of COVID-19.

“Peel currently has seven confirmed cases of variants of concern (VOC), including six cases of B.1.1.7. However, with the newly announced aggressive testing now underway through Public Health Ontario labs, this number is expected to increase,” Peel Public Health said in its statement.

The health unit added that while the variants are aggressive, “it is important to remember that they are still COVID-19 – they are not a new disease.”

The statement said actions already being undertaken, such as distancing, masking and staying home will help stop the disease.

Strain likely circulating in the community

Speaking with CP24 Monday afternoon, Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh said the investigation into the Mississauga case so far indicates the man acquired the infection in the community.

“What's concerning about the specific variant is that the individual has no travel history, and it (the variant) likely has been acquired through community transmission,” Loh said.

So far, the investigation has not revealed any connection to travel.

“The individual had been following all the protocols – isolating, working at home – and has no travel history outside of Canada in the proceeding time,” Loh said.

He said the case highlights “what a tenuous situation we're in here” even as a provincial shutdown has started to yield a gradual decrease in daily cases.

“It does mean that now that we are identifying these variants – both B 1.1.7 as well as B 1.351 in our community, that we really need to remain vigilant and continue to practice precautions,” Loh said.

While the man with the South African variant has had close contact with people who work in health care facilities, Loh said Peel health staff have conducted “extensive case and contact follow-up” and are not seeing any additional exposures so far.

He said the case highlights that Ontarians will need to continue being vigilant about adhering to public health guidelines at least through the spring when greater supplies of vaccine are expected to arrive in Canada.

There has been concern around the South African variant because it spreads more easily and there is evidence that it is more resistant to vaccines. Recent clinical trials of vaccines from Novavax Inc. and Johnson & Johnson in South Africa have shown that they are significantly less effective at preventing COVID-19 in those infected with the South African variant.

The South African variant has been detected in 22 other countries so far. Canada has reported a growing number of cases, with six logged in Alberta and four in British Columbia.

However, aggressive testing for the variant has just recently started and the number of cases is expected to rise as testing is expanded.

Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said Monday that some of the UK variant cases Ontario has seen “undoubtedly” have nothing to do with travel.

Recent modeling has indicated the UK variant could very well become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the province before winter is done.

“The issue of concern is that we're getting the variants and those variants are more transmissible, more infectious and spread more quickly, and could become the predominant strains if we're not careful,” Yaffe said.

She said a tightening of provincial borders would not likely do much good to stop the variants from spreading further.

“We need to keep pushing people to follow the current public health measures, stay at home,” Yaffe said.

- With files from Reuters