Researchers believe coronavirus variants are now dominant in B.C., official figures outdated

One of the province’s advisors on COVID-19 strategy and response believes variants of concern have now overtaken the original strain of the coronavirus. She is urging the government to be more transparent about the variants.

UBC biomathematics professor Sally Otto says she’s alarmed that the province hasn’t provided clear and current information about the more-contagious and virulent variants so that citizens can understand their level of risk..

“The projections from the data we have seen suggests we are right around 50 per cent of the variants of concern in this province, so it’s now the majority of the disease,” said Otto. “I think the province made a mistake of only reporting verifiable (cases) –what they called ‘confirmed VOC’ – and only doing it after they’ve typed it for which variant of concern and verified it.”

The verification process is expensive and time-consuming. Officials have acknowledged that it can take several days, causing a lag in the information available to the public.

On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said there’s a smaller “margin of error” in following public health measures because of the variants. But, she said, she feels comfortable with B.C.’s low level of COVID-19 testing relative to other provinces, as well as what those tests have been finding

“We've seen a lower and lower number of variants in the last couple of days,” said Henry at one point.  

“I got very disturbed yesterday with the number of (publicly reported) variants going down to 90 and the number of active cases going down and just realizing that that’s false and it gives people the misleading opinion we’re dealing with the same thing we’ve always been dealing with and the variants really aren’t taking over,” Otto told CTV News Vancouver.

The professor is on an advisory panel that predicts and assesses various factors in the provincial fight against the virus, including how various public health measures or vaccination strategies could impact the trajectory of the pandemic.

It’s important to note there have been multiple days on which the province simply didn’t provide any information about new variants, citing lab sequencing issues. In a study that screened every positive COVID-19 sample in the province to see if there were any variants floating around undetected in the community, an unexplained issue resulted in a 10-fold increase in detected cases. 

Despite soaring cases and international scrutiny of variants, Henry revealed Thursday that whole genome sequencing to identify and confirm which strain of variant has been detected “is only run periodically during the week.”

Local data analyst and consultant Jens von Bermann has been collecting publicly available data and information from local scientists and points out that B.C.’s variant trajectory is no different than anywhere else in the world.

“There’s a very consistent relationship between COVID and variants across jurisdictions and across time,” he said. “It’s not like the virus can tell, ‘I’m in B.C., things are different here.’… It’s exponential growth.”

Faster option already available

B.C. researchers and scientists have been working hard to slash the turnaround time for finding and identifying variants, and they’ve had considerable success.

It used to be the entire genome of each sample had to be sequenced, which could take upwards of five days with specialized equipment. Then, researchers discovered distinctive markers common to the variants. Now, when they have a sample test positive for COVID-19, they can do a quick search for the marker and then send it on for further analysis through whole genome sequencing.

A specialized lab at St. Paul’s hospital has developed a screening system that eliminates the need for whole genome sequencing. It was the first lab in the province to detect the P.1 variant, which was first discovered in Brazil. The lab has since uncovered hundreds of cases, including dozens of cases from the Whistler area, forcing the shutdown of the resort. 

“The method we’re using is PCR-based, it’s versatile and it’s rapid, so instead of spending three days or five days doing whole genome sequencing, which we also do here at St. Paul’s, we decided to go with a more rapid approach screening for the 3 major variants of concern,” said Dr. Marc Romney, medical leader of the microbiology and virology department at the facility.

His team’s shortcut has put the turnaround time at a single day, and a week ago he told CTV News that the variants his lab was detecting had shifted, with the P.1 variant more common than B.1.1.7. The latter was first identified in the United Kingdom and makes up the majority of the variant cases in British Columbia, but with the delays in published numbers, it’s hard to know where the balance now stands.

He was able to provide CTV News with new infection figures that weren’t included in the provincial total for days.

Henry says the province is now screening more than 90 per cent of positive COVID-19 samples for variants and insists the P.1 cases are now contained, but also says some have spread beyond Whistler.  

“It's very small numbers, but we are watching very carefully and following up people very carefully, but there's no local super-spreader event that's related to these,” she said. “What we're finding is there's small chains of transmission in multiple areas that aren't linked.”

Would more information have changed behaviour?

The variants of concern earned their name because of their characteristics. As each person becomes infected, the mRNA in the virus replicates, but poorly, and there are changes. Some make the virus weaker and limit its ability to infect people, but other changes can make it more contagious.

The B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the U.K. is more contagious and has proven to make more people sicker. The P.1 variant is even worse.

“(P.1) is considered by some to be the most concerning of all the three major variants of concern because of what’s happening in Brazil, but specifically because it’s considered to be more transmissible, it is probably more virulent and it is probably more prone to immune evasion,” explained Romney.

That’s precisely why Otto is advocating for quick and transparent information on how many variants are circulating in the province, even if officials can’t pinpoint how many of each strain those numbers contain.

“I think the public good would’ve been better served knowing more about just how many variants were circulating and I do think more people would’ve been more careful in their travelling, more careful in their contacts with others if they knew how high a percentage the variants are,” said Otto. “It’s touch and go right now. We have to have the community supporting our public health leaders and acting.”