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

While the Okanagan Rail Trail remained open, Coldstream parks have been closed for a month now, but could re-open mid-May. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Funds link Okanagan Rail Trail to Predator Ridge

1.3-km section of multi-use trail with a safe crossing under Highway 97

Vernon Fire Rescue Services, BC Ambulance and Vernon North Okanagan RCMP responded to a three-vehicle collision at 32nd Street and 41st Avenue Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Google Maps)
Three vehicles collide on main Vernon road

Extent of injuries unknown at this time; police, ambulance and fire on scene

Several road closures were in effect Jan. 13 due to downed trees, but meanwhile many residents are hoping Lake Country will invest in fixing damaged roads in 2021. (District of Lake Country photo)
Road safety puts Lake Country traffic plans in drive

District funds traffic calming program, and community grant

One person was extricated from a vehicle that rolled off Highway 97 Feb. 25, 2021, near Clerke Road in Coldstream around 2 p.m. (Roger Knox - Vernon Morning Star)
Two hurt in Highway 97 rollover south of Vernon

Ambulance transfers two patients with non-life-threatening injuries

The District of Lake Country and BC Transit would like the public’s feedback on how to improve the Kelowna Regional Transit System for Lake Country. (File photo)
Lake Country residents asked for transit feedback

District and BC Transit seeking ways to improve Kelowna transit system for Lake Country residents

Kelowna singer-songwriter Brent Carmichael wants to encourage the community to be more empathetic. (Brent Carmichael)
Kelowna singer-songwriter calls for compassion, empathy in new music video

Brent Carmichael’s new music video will premier on Feb. 28

Summerland’s municipal council will proceed with a four per cent property tax increase this year, but the deadlines for property tax payment have been extended. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
Summerland councillor’s letter to media draws disappointment from colleagues

Statements about solar project did not violate ethical or conduct standards

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Kelowna’s top cop removing barriers for women in the force

Kara Triance’s journey to becoming a police chief was not without its challenges

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Ella Lamourexu. (Phil McLachlan, Kelowna Capital News)
Kelowna’s drag story

Ella Lamourexu explains the history behind drag in Kelowna

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Person experiencing homelessness. (Black Press Media file photo)
Program preventing youth homelessness launches in the Okanagan

Upstream Project’s goal is to help young people become more resilient

(Michael Rodriguez, Kelowna Capital News/FILE)
First death tied to COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna hospital

The outbreak was first announced on Monday, Feb. 22

Walter Makepeace was shocked to find two of his beehives were missing from his Keremeos acreage Feb. 20, 2020. (Contributed)
Stolen beehives create buzz in South Okanagan village

Walter Makepeace was shocked to see two beehives had gone missing from his property

Most Read