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

Castlegar’s Gabrielle Herle (right) will be one of the speakers at the conference. She is seen here with Wendy Gaskill from Chinook Scaffolding accepting their Contractor of the Year Award in 2019 from the Builders Code Champion Awards. Photo: Submitted
Girls in STEAM and Leadership Conference offered free for all girls in the Kootenay Boundary

Virtual conference for girls in grades 8 to 12 will be taking place on March 8

A cougar in early February killed a family dog near Grand Forks, said Conservation Officer Mark Walkosky.
Grand Forks Conservation Officers want pet owners to be aware of area predators

Dogs have been recently been attacked and killed by wild animals near Saddle Lake

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Friday’s announcement caps years of planning by policy planners and food growers across the Boundary. File photo
Boundary food hub to go ahead as province kicks in $750,000

The hub’s Rock Creek and Greenwood operations are designed to restore “food sovereignty,” says policy planner

Blaine Penner survived an avalanche in Norns Range. Photo: Blaine Penner
West Kootenay man survives avalanche in Norns Range

Blaine Penner accidentally stepped out onto a cornice, triggering avalanche

Thursday, Feb. 4: RDKB Chief Engineer Darryl Funk hoists a banner commemorating last year’s championship season by the Bantam House Bruins. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Bantam Bruins honoured at hair-raising banner ceremony at Grand Forks’ Jack Goddard Arena

Asst. coach Mike Tollis said he reluctantly gave in to the team’s victory wish that he cut his pony tale

Justin Morissette is still recovering from the injuries sustained in the altercation. He is not yet able to walk without assistance. (Justin Morissette, Twitter)
B.C. man suing city and police over violent altercation with anti-LGBTQ preacher

Justin Morissette argues police knew the threat the preacher posed, and failed to keep the peace

Jack Barnes, who was Cowichan Valley Capitals property from May 2020 until last week, scores a goal for the Penticton Vees during the 2019-20 BCHL season. (Brennan Phillips/Black Press)
COVID-crunched BCHL facing trade deadline dilemma with its 20-year-olds

Hard decisions loom when BCHL may or may not resume play

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

UBC Okanagan students are among the most food insecure in Canada, according to a new study by UBC.
(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
UBC Okanagan students among most food insecure in Canada

42.3 per cent either can’t properly feed themselves, or are worried they will soon run out of money

Average response times for critical “purple” and “red” calls were between nine and 10 minutes Feb. 19 in Metro Vancouver, with only less critical “yellow” calls receiving an average response time of 45 minutes. The longer than usual delay was due to a combination of factors, BC Emergency Health Services said. (APBC image)
After a night of one-hour waits for ambulances, union goes public with concerns

B.C. Ambulance Service says high-priority calls were still 10 minutes or less

NorKam secondary student Karis Wilson in the outfit that got her sent home from school on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (Contributed to Kamloops This Week)
B.C. teen in turtleneck, lace-edged dress sent home from school for ‘inappropriate’ outfit

NorKam secondary student Karis Wilson was told the lace on the garment made it look like a slip dress

B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and former finance minister Carole James roll out “StrongerBC,” a $1.5 billion business support plan for COVID-19, eight months after the B.C. legislature approved the money and four days before a snap election call, Sept. 17, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C.’s COVID-19 business grant fund still mostly unspent

$300 million pandemic assistance approved almost a year ago

Most Read