A person wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 is silhouetted against B.C. Place stadium while walking over a pedestrian bridge on False Creek, in Vancouver, on Friday, April 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A person wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 is silhouetted against B.C. Place stadium while walking over a pedestrian bridge on False Creek, in Vancouver, on Friday, April 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Experts say COVID variants likely make up 40% of B.C.’s cases, double what officials have disclosed

The B.1.1.7 variant alone makes up a third of B.C.’s cases. It’s expected to reach 60%, catching up with Ontario in about a month.

British Columbia is severely under-reporting the number of COVID-19 cases that are variants of concern, limiting the public’s awareness of the threat, experts say.

Sarah Otto, a University of British Columbia professor who has done COVID-19 modelling, said the province’s reliance on time-consuming whole-genome sequencing to confirm variant cases is not necessary.

She said the PCR test used to identify all COVID-19 cases in the province already detects a mutation that the three major variants of concern have in common. B.C. could also adopt a newer method to distinguish between the variants as part of the test, she added.

Instead, the province only reports cases once they’ve been confirmed through whole-genome sequencing. Otto said she doesn’t believe B.C. has the capacity to sequence all presumptive variant cases identified by the PCR test, and is under-reporting them as a result.

Sharing timely, complete information about these more-transmissible variants would help enlist more B.C. residents in the “concerted effort” needed to curb the spread, Otto said.

“If a patient comes into the hospital and knows it’s a variant, then you already know the person is at basically double the risk, and so doctors should be treating the cases more cautiously,” she said.

“As well, if you just got it and you realize you’re carrying a variant, people may just be that much more cautious in the way that we want.”

B.C. has reported 3,766 cases that are variants of concern to date, including 2,837 of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, 51 of the B. 1.351 strain first detected in South Africa and 878 of the P. 1 variant first found in Brazil.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday that 266 variant cases are active, just three per cent of overall active cases.

However, in the same briefing, she also said the B.1.1.7 variant makes up a third of B.C.’s cases and she expects it to reach 60 per cent, catching up with Ontario, in about a month.

Jens von Bergmann, a mathematician who does data analysis, said the three per cent figure is a “meaningless” number. The province is not sequencing all variant cases, and for those it does sequence, they are likely no longer active by the time the work is done, he said.

He said B.1.1.7 making up a third of B.C.’s infections sounds more accurate, although he suspected that data was a week or two old. Both he and Otto believe variant cases represent about 50 per cent of current infections in the province.

A preprint paper done by BC Centre for Disease Control scientists shows that publicly reported figures of variants of concern are lower than those captured by the PCR test.

The paper, recently posted on a public server ahead of formal peer review, says that 23 presumptive variant cases were identified by the PCR test the week of Jan. 31, representing just over one per cent of infections.

For the week of Feb. 28, there were 434 presumptive variant cases, or 12.2 per cent of infections, the paper says.

The authors of the paper concluded that there was a “high concordance” between PCR testing and whole-genome sequencing, and that a combined testing approach was feasible.

The BC Centre for Disease Control did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In contrast with the figures in the paper, Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix reported that the province had only seen 14 variant cases by the end of January, with that number growing to 158 by the end of February.

On March 25, Henry said the percentage of variant cases was in the “high teens” to “early 20s.”

Otto and von Bergmann both said that given the exponential growth of variants of concern, it’s likely that they now account for about half of active cases.

Henry said Tuesday the province screens about 90 per cent of positive tests for the mutation associated with the three major variants of concern. All of the samples that contain the mutation undergo whole-genome sequencing, she said.

Otto said she believed that Henry’s remarks were based on outdated information.

“I know that they intended to sequence everything that had come up as a variant. That was possible when it was just a few cases or a few hundred cases. But we’re getting into the region where it’s a few thousand cases a week,” she said.

Ontario reports daily on the variant cases identified by PCR testing. It is able to detect cases involving B.1.1.7 based on the test alone, but must do whole-genome sequencing to distinguish between P. 1 and B. 1.351.

Henry said reporting variants of concern based on the PCR test would provide an “inflated” figure because other variants also contain the mutation that the three major ones share.

But von Bergmann noted that the BC Centre for Disease Control paper showed that one out of 23 presumptive variants of concern identified by the PCR test was found to be a non-variant of concern following whole-genome sequencing.

At the same time, he pointed out, another one of those 23 could not undergo sequencing because there wasn’t enough genetic material.

“It cuts both ways and we are giving an extremely deflated count right now.”

Coronavirus

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

Just Posted

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
54 more cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Thirty-two people in the region are in hospital with the virus, 11 of them in intensive care

The freed osprey keeps a wary eye on its rescuers after being deposited on its nest. (Photo credit: Greg Hiltz)
Hydro crew in Ashcroft gets osprey rescue call-out they won’t soon forget

Bird was tangled in baling wire hanging from a hydro pole, necessitating a tricky rescue

Hesco baskets were first used outside the Cache Creek fire hall in 2020 (pictured), and have once again been put in place as a pre-emptive measure to safeguard the hall against possible flooding. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Cache Creek taking pre-emptive measures to prevent flooding

Sand and sandbags will soon be available for all residents who need them

Clinton council has approved a request to allow limited youth sports activity at Reg Conn Park and Elliott Park. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Clinton council okays use of playing fields for youth sports

Clinton Minor Sports Association gets green light for use of Reg Conn and Elliott Parks

The proposed site of the new Loon lake fire hall, on the site of the former provincial park. (Photo credit: TNRD)
Construction of new Loon Lake fire hall delayed because of cost

Lowest tender more than double the estimated cost of the project

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

Nanaimo RCMP say a man was injured while pouring gunpowder on a backyard fire in Harewood on Wednesday, April 21. (File photo)
Nanaimo man hospitalized after pouring gunpowder onto backyard fire

RCMP, investigating explosion in Harewood, also came across an alcohol still on the property

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives for briefing on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020 (B.C. government)
B.C. sees 1,006 COVID-19 cases Thursday, ‘alarming’ 502 in hospital

Vaccine bookings for people aged 60 and older set to start

Shannon Zirnhelt, from left, her son Lockie, 3, Julia Zirnhelt, 13, and Ella Krus, 13, co-founders of Third Planet Crusade are featured in a music video set to air on Earth Day, April 22, 2021. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
VIDEO: B.C.-made music video launched in time for Earth Day 2021

Singer songwriter Shannon Zirnhelt worked with Third Planet Crusade on the project in the Cariboo

Ambulance crews have been busy with a record number of emergency overdose calls this Wednesday, April 21. (BC Emergency Health Services)
B.C. paramedics responded to a record 138 overdose calls in a single day

Wednesday’s calls included 48 in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and 51 in Fraser Health

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. COVID-19 hotspots targeted as AstraZeneca vaccine runs low

17,000 appointments booked the first day for people aged 40 and up

Dresses hang outside Nelson city hall as part of the REDress Project by Métis artist Jaime Black. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
B.C. red dresses symbolizing missing, murdered Indigenous women vandalized a 2nd time

Nelson’s REDress Project was vandalized along with an outdoor installation on Vancouver Island

A nurse loads a syringe with a vaccine for injection at the Victoria Clipper Terminal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout not enough to bring back normal life by fall: report

Only 51% of the population will be protected under B.C.’s current rollout, SFU professors say more vaccinations are needed to achieve herd immunity

Letisha Reimer, 13, was killed Nov. 1, 2016 in a stabbing at Abbotsford Senior Secondary.
UPDATED: Second-degree murder conviction stands for Abbotsford school killer

Judge finds that Gabriel Klein is criminally responsible for death of Letisha Reimer

Most Read