The percentage of cases of COVID-19 variants of concern making up all active cases in the province is rising, and one mathematician said the province may be at a tipping point.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that in late January, variant cases made up three per cent of all active cases; as of last Wednesday, she said that variant cases made up nine per cent of all active cases in the province.
“Having that said, in other jurisdictions they have seen a much more rapid growth of variants of concern as a proportion of all COVID cases,” Hinshaw said.
“This means our health measures, both the overall restrictions as well as the targeted measures for variant cases, are working to slow the growth and if we continue to work together, we can continue to limit the spread.”
Other numbers provided to Global News by Alberta Health show that from January 25 to 31 inclusive, there were 41 variant of concern cases and a total of 3,038 new cases of COVID-19 – or 1.3 per cent of new cases.
From March 3 to 9 inclusive, there were 230 variant of concern cases and a total of 2,282 new cases of COVID-19 – or 10 per cent of new cases.
“Please note that when a positive COVID case is identified by the lab, the sample is sent for variant screening or whole genome sequencing which can take some time. As a result, variant case counts are already included in the total cases reported. This means that each day, historic info on variant of concern cases is being updated, so numbers fluctuate day to day,” said spokesperson Sherene Khaw.
Developmental biologist Gosia Gasperowicz with the University of Calgary said cases of the variant are doubling fast.
“It’s not as fast as they could but definitely they are growing,” she said.
“They are still a low absolute number and always with exponential growth, it looks innocent at low numbers…Once you start doubling from 300 then, just in two doubling times, you are at 1,200.”
Gasperowicz is a proponent of the COVID zero strategy, which aims to get COVID-19 cases down to zero. A growing number of variant cases could put Alberta is in a tricky position,” Gasperowicz said.
“We are doing better than other jurisdictions in not letting the variant grow as fast as it can grow but it’s still growing. We are not speeding at 200 km/h but 100 km/h, which is still speeding.
“Once restrictions are eased, there’s possibility for it to spread and it will spread.”
Gasperowicz said it is important for the R value of variants of concern to be reported, which they currently are not. Alberta Health only releases the R value for the province, Edmonton zone, Calgary zone and the rest of Alberta. Requests for the R value of variant cases to Alberta Health have been declined.
“This number is not reported and I think it should be,” she said.
Mathematician Daniel Coombs with UBC said Alberta is at a “reasonable tipping point now” with nine or 10 per cent of cases qualifying as variants of concern.
“If you think of the variant as an entirely new disease, it is spreading into a more or less untouched population,” he said.
“In the same way there’s not a particular number of cases we really worry about with regular COVID, we just know we don’t want it to go up because you’ll end up with lots of people in hospital and other serious effects. It’s the same with the variant.”
Coombs said that, with the increase in percentage of variants in all active cases in Alberta, the prediction most people would make now would be more robust growth of the B.1.1.7. variant, which was first discovered in the U.K., and the predominant strain of a variant of concern in the province, over the next few weeks.
“Certainly what’s happened in other places in the world, is that the B.1.1.7., once it is finished invading, once it is growing robustly, it comes to completely dominate the epidemic,” he said.
Coombs said it is now a race between the variants and vaccinations.
“The sooner we can get the shots in arms, particularly in vulnerable people and people who come into contact with a lot of others, the better off we will be,” he said.
“Anything we can do to slow down the rapidly growing variants of concern, anything we can do to vaccinate faster and make sure no vaccines are left unused over the next few months is really critical.”
Dr. Chris Mody, the head of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary, said the arrival of the P.1 variant, the strain first identified in Brazil, was to be expected. Alberta recorded two cases of the P.1 strain over the weekend.
“Eventually we were going to see the variant…we knew it was coming,” he said.
Alberta saw 136 new variant cases over the weekend, a number Mody said is not entirely unanticipated.
“I think for a number of weeks, everybody has been saying the variants are coming. It is a question of how strong and how fast,” Mody said.
“We’re all hoping they will come slowly and in small numbers and so far we still are dealing with slow and small numbers. But the variants are, in terms of a virus, they’re an amazing virus. They are built to spread – that’s what a virus does.”
As of March 13, Alberta had confirmed a total of 930 variant cases of concern.
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