This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NIAID-RML

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NIAID-RML

B.C. ramping up screening for faster-spreading COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’

B.C. has sequenced about 11,000 COVID-positive samples since last February

There’s a race between COVID-19 and the rollout of vaccine as researchers and health officials in B.C. warn of two faster-spreading variants.

The number of variant cases may start low, but increased transmission could only be a few weeks away, just as delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is delayed, said Caroline Colijn, theCanada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Infection, Evolution and Public Health at Simon Fraser University.

Colijn’s lab released modelling data this week showing public health rules in several provinces, including B.C., would not be sufficient to prevent exponential growth in cases starting around March if a COVID-19 variant with a 40 per cent higher transmission rate became established.

“By established I mean some cluster doesn’t get stopped and takes off and we don’t notice or we don’t act and we are unable to stop those chains of transmission and so they take off the way the current COVID has,” she said.

Colijn added she would expect public health officials to enact further restrictions before such exponential growth in variant cases.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told a news briefing this week that B.C. has detected three cases of a variant found in South Africa and none were linked to each other or to travel, pointing to community spread.

By completing whole genome sequencing, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has also recorded six travel-related cases of the COVID-19 variant first found in the United Kingdom, which appears significantly more transmissible than earlier strains of the new coronavirus.

READ MORE: Trudeau teases stricter travel measures; Canadians flying to U.S. now need COVID test

B.C. is sequencing about 15 per cent of samples that test positive for COVID-19 in the province, said Natalie Prystajecky, head of the environmental microbiology program at the centre’s public health lab.

Sequencing is more labour-intensive than diagnostic testing, she said, so it can take up to two weeks to produce data from a given sample.

B.C. has sequenced about 11,000 COVID-positive samples since last February and generated quality data from about 9,500 of them, she said.

The average rate of sequencing across Canada is between five and 10 per cent, said Prystajecky, a member of the Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network that received funding last spring to sequence 150,000 samples.

In addition to targeting samples from travellers and youth, she said, B.C. is prioritizing more general, “background” sampling to understand if public health officials are missing anything, such as transmission of new variants.

“We’re ramping up,” she said. “We did 750 genomes last week and we’re aiming to continue to increase the amount of sequencing we’re doing.”

Prystajecky said her lab is also planning to do a “point prevalence study” to screen a high number of samples at a given point in time.

B.C. is taking a smart approach to sequencing by targeting travel-related cases, said Colijn, but at the rate sequencing data becomes available, “there could be 10 or 50 or 100 cases of whatever we detect at the time.”

READ MORE: COVID-19 variant predicted to cause ‘unmanageable’ case spike in B.C: report

Colijn believes B.C. should consider Atlantic Canada’s approach and create a so-called “Pacific bubble” that would require travellers from other provinces to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in B.C.

Data from Pfizer and Moderna — the pharmaceutical companies behind the two COVID-19 vaccines approved in Canada — show their products still protect people against the U.K. and South African variants, said Fiona Brinkman, a professor in the molecular biology and biochemistry department at Simon Fraser University.

“What this means is people really need to hunker down until this vaccine gets out into the population further,” she said in an interview this week.

“We really are in a race between the vaccine and the virus right now.”

Basic measures including physical distancing and avoiding non-essential travel are still effective in preventing new variants from spreading, she said.

B.C. reported 4,260 active cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday out of more than 65,000 confirmed cases since the pandemic began.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Pivot Rx is a new downtown Vernon pharmacy that aims to combine face-to-face care with the latest technological offerings in pharmaceutical care. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
New Vernon pharmacy takes ‘old-school’ approach to cutting-edge care

Pivot Rx has set up shop downtown in a building formerly home to MacKay’s Prescriptions for 40 years

Armstrong’s Jesse Crowe, shown at the home of golf, St. Andrew’s in Scotland, has been named the Royal York Golf Course’s director of golf operations. (Facebook photo)
Armstrong golf pro soars to home course position

Jesse Crowe becomes director of golf operations at Royal York Golf Course

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
30 new COVID-19 cases, five more deaths in Interior Health

This brings the total number of cases to 7,271 since testing began

Interior Health officially declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Creekside Landing in Vernon on Jan. 3, which was followed by the first death from the virus 10 days later. (Kaigo photo)
Despite additional death, COVID outbreak over at Vernon care home

Creekside Landing cleared of coronavirus, despite additional loss in last day

Ranchero Deep Creek firefighters respond to a blaze involving two adjacent structures at a property off of Deep Creek Road on Sunday, Feb. 21. The buildings were believed to have been used as part of a cannabis growing operation, and RCMP are investigating. (Sean Coubrough/CSRD photo)
Ranchero Deep Creek firefighters respond to a blaze involving two adjacent structures at a property off of Deep Creek Road on Sunday, Feb. 21. The buildings were believed to have been used as part of a cannabis growing operation, and RCMP are investigating. (Sean Coubrough/CSRD photo)
Shuswap firefighters responding to structure blaze find cannabis grow operation

RCMP investigating, attempting to track down owner of property

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

Students from Summerland’s Okanagan College often posed for photographs on the Big Rock. The rock was on the northern slope of Giant’s Head Mountain. (Photo courtesy of the Summerland Museum)
Summerland’s Big Rock had been desposited during last ice age

Rock was once a prominent feature on Giant’s Head Mountain

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

According to a new poll, a majority of Canadians want to see illicit drugs decriminalized. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Majority of Canadians think it’s high time to decriminalize illicit drugs: poll

More than two-times the B.C. residents know someone who died from an overdose compared to rest of Canada

(Stock photo)
EDITORIAL: The freedom to read

Books have been challenged many times in the past

The dam at Thirsk Lake, west of Summerland, was expanded in 2007. A crack has now been discovered where the old and new portions of the dam meet. (Summerland Review file photo)
Crack at Thirsk Dam to be examined

Reservoir west of Summerland was expanded in 2007

(Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents can reserve provincial camp sites starting March 8

B.C. residents get priority access to camping reservations in province

Most Read