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USask scientists part of national network tracking COVID-19 variants

As healthcare workers wage the battle against COVID-19, a network of scientists is looking to understand the variants of concern and are already watching for the next threat.

“It’s almost inevitable that more variants of concern will emerge globally over the next months to a year or more,” said Dr. Cory Neudorf, a University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist.

“And that’s partially just because the virus is still spreading very rapidly.”

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At the end of March, the Canadian Government announced $9 million to fund the coronavirus variants rapid response network, or CoVaRR-Net.

It’s a Canada-wide collaboration of COVID-19 researchers, including federal, provincial and territorial labs.

They study the variants, coordinate their findings and collect data from public health agencies around the world so Canadians know how to act when new strains appear.

“If you start to see a cluster emerging somewhere in the world where it seems to be spreading faster or in a group of people who were immunized already, you know where to turn your attention,” Neudorf said.

Neudorf and fellow USask epidemiologist Nazeem Muharajine are part CoVaRR-Net’s efforts to explain to the public and frontline workers how transmissible and lethal new variants are.

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“This information needs to be fed to people in provinces who are handling and managing the response to the pandemic in hospitals, in acute care settings,” Muhajarine said.

The network will also provide recommendations for public health measures, though Muhajarine said they likely won’t propose dramatic changes.

He said any information given will likely revolve around new guidelines on the effectiveness of different types of masks and the necessary amount of physical distancing needed to keep people safe.

Neudorf stressed the best ways to fight the virus, and prevent new strains from emerging, is to wear masks, maintain physical distancing and to get vaccinated.

“The more you reduce the number of infections happening, you reduce the chance of the virus being able to produce yet another variant that’s even more serious,” he said.

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The network will also provide advice to elected officials.

Muhajarine said many political leaders across the country have not imposed effective health restrictions, or have not done so when needed, or “doing it in very small steps and expecting more to happen.”

He said a unified source of information will help the public hold officials to account.

“We are hoping that people will put pressure on our political leaders,” he told Global News.

“After all, we are the ones who have elected our political leaders.”

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