What we know about coronavirus variants in Alberta

Variant cases of coronavirus are on the rise in Alberta and if allowed to spread could pose a threat to the province’s health-care system and the government’s phased plan to ease restrictions. 

Premier Jason Kenney told a telephone town hall Wednesday that “if the variants take over, we might have to go back to a harder policy than early December.”

But what are coronavirus variants and what is Alberta doing to prevent spread of the more easily transmissible mutations?

Variants of concern

Virus mutations are nothing new. It’s common for viruses like influenza to continue to evolve into multiple strains, and the novel coronavirus itself has had multiple strains throughout the pandemic. 

It was a viral mutation that allowed the novel coronavirus to start infecting humans in the first place, said Craig Jenne, associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

“The ability to pick up mutations is what allowed this particular coronavirus originally to cross from animals to people,” Jenne said. “So this is a normal process, we expect it. We can track it and we’re watching for it.”

A few mutations have resulted in what are considered variants of concern by the World Health Organization. 

The B117 variant was first detected in the United Kingdom; it spreads quickly and has driven a significant rise in cases in the U.K. and Ireland. 

Dr. Craig Jenne is an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

The first case of B117 was detected in Alberta in December. As of Thursday there were 61 cases linked to that variant in the province. So far, 15 cases in the province do not have a link to travel. The B117 variant has been linked to long-term outbreaks in Ontario and is connected to an outbreak at an Edmonton daycare. 

Another variant, first detected in South Africa, has also been found in Alberta. That variant, known as B1351, was first reported in Alberta on Jan. 8 — the first known case in Canada. Seven cases have been identified in Alberta, all linked to travel. 

A third variant of concern has been discovered in Brazil but has not been detected in Canada. 

Alberta Health does not currently provide detailed information about where variant cases are located, but so far B117 cases have been confirmed in Edmonton and Calgary health zones. Whether cases have been found in other health zones has not been announced publicly. 

The variants are more easily transmissible than the original strain of coronavirus. The concern is that higher case numbers will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths. 

The good news, Jenne said, is that the spread of the variants can be prevented in much the same way as the more conventional coronavirus strain.

“Our current safety measures appear to be quite effective against these variants,” Jenne said.

“So these [mutations] are not changing the virus that allows it to get around our public safety policies. It’s not more resistant to handwashing. It’s not better able to get through masks. What it does do is, it takes advantage of any lapse in our defences. So, if we keep following the guidelines and we are vigilant and don’t let our guard down, we will actually be very effective at limiting the spread of these variants.”

Not enough research has been done yet to determine just how effective COVID-19 vaccines will be against the variants.

On Thursday, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that early investigations suggest the current vaccines could be less effective against some variants in terms of preventing all symptoms of COVID-19, though they are still effective in preventing severe outcomes.

Even if the current vaccines aren’t as effective, Jenne said, they are still valuable in preventing spread. 

“I think that has to be put in perspective, that the protection against the original strain was so high that even a slight reduction is still very good, it’s still highly protective to people,” he said. “At the end of the day, the vaccine still appears to be quite protective against these viral variants.”

Screening samples for variants

Alberta labs are screening up to 300 tests per day for the three variants of concern, with a targeted turnaround time for results in 48 hours. The variant screening is done separately from the standard PCR tests.

“The screening is done on a wide sample of positive COVID-19 test results,” Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said in an email. “This includes testing all positive samples in returning international travellers, as well as samples from other situations of higher risk, such as outbreaks or cases linked to vulnerable settings such as schools, and a systematic sample of other positive tests from across the province.”

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In addition to the variant screening, labs are also doing full genome sequencing for about 400 samples a week. That is a separate test that would detect all variants, including the three of concern.

With new case numbers dropping, almost every positive test in Alberta can now be screened for variants.

Jenne said it’s important to catch those variant cases, particularly to help prevent community spread. If you fail to contain variants, their ability to spread means they can quickly become the dominant strain. 

Alberta’s response

When the first non-travel case of B117 variant was detected in the province last week, Health Minister Tyler Shandro warned that growth in case numbers driven by variants is a very real threat.

“It would significantly impact the health-care system and the services available to all Albertans,” he said. 

In addition to ramped up testing, the province has introduced new quarantine rules for variant cases. Household contacts of someone who tests positive for a variant of concern may need to isolate for up to 24 days, if the person with the positive result opts to quarantine at home for the entire duration of the isolation period.

Jenne said the new rules for household contacts are a good “safety net” to help prevent additional spread.

This week the province also announced it has a dedicated contact tracing team for investigations involving variant cases.

The province also made changes to the international border testing pilot project last month, requiring travellers entering the province to remain in isolation until their second negative test comes back. If the person has a positive test, they must isolate for 14 days.

While Alberta is set to ease some restrictions in its phased reopening plan beginning on Monday, Hinshaw has repeatedly said that plan is based on case numbers, the R-value and positivity rates staying low.

Jenne said the province needs to factor in variant cases, and the potential for increased spread, into any reopening plan. 

“That’s not to say that the plan to go ahead on [Feb. 8] is not necessarily safe,” he said. “I’m not indicating that … but I do think that as we get more and more information about how many variants are out there, where they are in the community and how it is spreading, that we need to integrate that data in and re-evaluate our decisions as they become available.”

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