The scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Table says the province will need to enact a third lockdown even harsher than what was enacted in the past in order to avoid a crippling surge in coronavirus cases brought on by the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant.

Dr. Peter Jüni told CTV News Channel that Ontario is currently experiencing “two pandemics” at the same time, with older “wild” variants of the virus well under control and receding, while the variants of concern, chiefly the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom, continue an exponential climb.

“We keep having the old variants under control, cases are plummeting, that’s all good but the problem is we don’t have the new one under control and therefore we start talking about a pandemic within a pandemic,” Jüni said.

Jüni and his colleagues on the Science Table spent much of the last four weeks warning that the variants of concern would spoil efforts to curb COVID-19 infection that spanned most of January and February.

“We need once more, firmer restrictions – firmer than before actually,” Jüni said. “If we lock down once more it will be the last time we will have to do that.”

Their current calculations show that the so-called “wild” or “early” variants of coronavirus are receding, with a reproduction number of 0.9, meaning every 10 infected persons will go on to infect 9 others.

But among the variant of concern cases, now representing 40 per cent of all infections in the province, they had a reproduction number of 1.24, signalling exponential forward growth.

All of Ontario was under a state of emergency and stay-at-home order for more than one month starting Jan. 13, after which most of the province was allowed to reopen.

The last regions of the province – Toronto, Peel and North Bay – just exited the stay-at-home order on Monday.

Asked if another lockdown was possible, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said Thursday it was possible.

"Can the province move back into a state of emergency – they certainly can," he said, adding that cabinet is aware of the situation and everyone is working to avoid the possibility of a third lockdown as much as possible. 

Jüni said he had seen a recent English study that said B.1.1.7 caused at least a 30 per cent higher risk of death in infected patients and said he agreed with its conclusions.

He said that although vaccines are effective and Ontario’s rollout has insulated vulnerable people from the chance of death, their deployment would not be fast enough to prevent a third lockdown.

In February, the Science Table said the province could see up to 4,000 new cases per day by the end of March in a worst-case scenario.

On Thursday, Public Health Ontario said they had confirmed 956 cases as B.1.1.7 through an intensive laboratory process known as whole genomic sequencing.

It also said 6,500 other samples screened positive for a variant of concern, with at least 90 per cent of those likely to be B.1.1.7, based on earlier research.

The Ford government has indicated so far that it would like to maintain use of its colour-coded coronavirus response framework, which allows individual regions to have different levels of restrictions based on local infection per capita infection rates.

The current framework allows more than 80 per cent of the province’s public health units to permit activities such as indoor dining, fitness activity and personal care such as hair appointments.

Sudbury and Thunder Bay were put back in the most restrictive "grey - lockdown" category in the past two weeks, banning all but indoor retail activity and outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, in response to rising local case counts.

Toronto and Peel Region are also in the grey zone.