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

The two suspects arrested south of 150 Mile House Tuesday, March 2, following a high-speed chase with the RCMP have been charged. (Will Roberts photo)
High-speed chase suspects charged, remain in custody after arrest south of Williams Lake

John Craig and Maggie M. Higgott appeared in Williams Lake Provincial Court March 4

Interior Health reported 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5. (Black Press Files)
Interior Health reports 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5

Over 300,000 vaccine doses have been administered provincewide.

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to Stoney and Minnie lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

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
36 new cases of COVID-19, one death in Interior Health

The number of active cases in the region is at 366

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
43 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

368 cases in the region remain active

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

Kevin Haughton is the founder/technologist of Courtenay-based Clearflo Solutions. Scott Stanfield photo
Islander aims Clearflo clean drinking water system at Canada’s remote communities

Entrepreneur $300,000 mobile system can produce 50,000 litres of water in a day, via solar energy

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA reveals COVID-19 outbreak

Tsartlip First Nation chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA apologizes

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Friday, March 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau holds firm on premiers’ health-care funding demands, COVID-19 aid comes first

Premiers argue that the current amount doesn’t keep pace with yearly cost increases of about five per cent

Most Read