Health officials in Ontario said on Saturday that two confirmed cases of the new coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom have appeared in the Canadian province.

Scientists say the variant is about 40%-70% more transmissible than the original strain. Several other countries, including Australia, Italy and the Netherlands say they detected cases of the new strain.

The Canadian cases, identified in a couple in southern Ontario with no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contact, came as the province went into a lockdown on Saturday.

“This further reinforces the need for Ontarians to stay home as much as possible and continue to follow all public health advice, including the provincewide shutdown measures beginning today,” Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer, said in a statement.

Ontario reported 4,301 new cases over the past two days on Saturday, with the province seeing more than 2,000 cases per day for 12 consecutive days.

Last week, Canada extended to January 6 a ban on passenger flights arriving from Britain and expanded enhanced screening and monitoring measures to travelers arriving from South Africa, citing the rise of the more infectious variant.

Scientists say there is no evidence that vaccines currently being deployed – including one made by Pfizer and BioNtech – or other COVID-19 shots in development will not protect against this variant.

Canada began rolling out the Pfizer vaccine earlier this month and started distributing Moderna Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine across the country last Thursday.

Amid the continuing pandemic, the new strain of coronavirus first found in the UK has caused a stir as it is reported to be more transmissible and spreads faster than other SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Many countries have suspended passenger travel to and from the United Kingdom in a bid to prevent the import of the new virus strain.

Japan on Saturday said it would temporarily ban non-resident foreign nationals from entering the country as it tightens its borders following the detection of a new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus.

The ban will take effect from December 28 and will run through January, the government said in an emailed statement.

Japan on Friday reported its first cases of a fast-spreading variant in passengers arriving from Britain. The new variant has also been detected in a man who visited the UK and a family member – the first cases of infected people found outside airport checks – Nippon TV reported on Saturday.

The new coronavirus variant, which infects more easily but does not appear to be more deadly or pose any concerns for vaccines, has already been detected in several countries, including Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa and Australia.

Canada has so far reported 541,616 cases of COVID-19, including 14,800 deaths.

(With agency inputs)

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