By Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
A variant of COVID-19 that has ravaged the U.K. is now in Canada, health officials said Saturday as they announced an Ontario couple had been diagnosed with the contagious new strain.
The province’s associate chief medical officer of health said in a news release that the strain of COVID-19 was identified in a couple from Durham Region, just east of Toronto, who have no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contacts.
“Durham Region Health Department has conducted case and contact investigation and Ontario is working in collaboration with our federal counterparts at the Public Health Agency of Canada,” Dr. Barbara Yaffe said in a statement.
The Public Health Agency of Canada noted that research into the new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is ongoing.
“While early data suggests that these new variants may be more transmissible, to date there is no evidence that they cause more severe disease or have any impact on antibody response or vaccine effectiveness,” the health agency said.
The variant was first identified in the United Kingdom but has since been detected in several other countries, including Denmark, Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands.
The Ontario government noted the discovery of the variant was “not unexpected” due to international travel, and repeated a call for the federal government to increase testing at airports.
“Recognizing the potential increased risk that inbound international travelers may pose with this new variant, the province continues to call on the federal government to urgently partner with Ontario to implement testing at Toronto Pearson International Airport,” the news release read.
“Regardless of whether federal support is forthcoming, the Ontario government is prepared to act on its own to implement an airport testing program.”
Canada previously announced a travel ban on all flights arriving from the UK until January 6, 2021 in an effort to contain the variant.
The announcement about the diagnoses came as Ontario began a provincewide lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.
The province has reported more than 2,000 cases 12 days in a row, including 2,142 new positive tests on Saturday and 2,159 cases from Christmas Day.
There were also 81 additional deaths during those days, the provincial government said.
Under the new rules that came into effect on Boxing Day, restaurants in Ontario can only provide takeout, drive through and delivery, including the sale of alcohol.
Ontario has joined Manitoba and Quebec in closing non-essential retail stores for in-person shopping, while supermarkets and pharmacies must follow rules for distancing and limiting capacity.
The new rules are having an effect on Boxing Day shopping, which is forcing bargain hunters in many parts of the country to look online for deals instead of lining up and crowding into stores in person.
Other provinces have put limits on in-store capacity as officials urge Canadians to stay home and limit contacts as much as possible to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Ontario’s new measures remain in effect in southern Ontario until Jan. 23, but will lift for the less-affected northern regions on Jan. 9.
In Quebec, a province-wide lockdown went into effect Friday, with businesses deemed non-essential ordered to remain closed until at least Jan. 11. The province did not publish data on the number of new infections or deaths on Friday or Saturday.
Government websites for Manitoba and Saskatchewan also indicated those provinces would not provide updates on Saturday.
Alberta reported an estimated 1,200 new cases on Dec. 24 and about 900 on Christmas Day, according to a modified update provided by the province’s chief medical officer of health.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Twitter that hospitalizations and intensive care numbers also increased slightly each day.
New Brunswick reported two new cases on Saturday, and said both were related to travel.
Officials also reported possible exposure sites on three recent Air Canada flights into New Brunswick.