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New highly contagious COVID-19 variant identified in B.C. Interior for first time

Click to play video: 'Do new variants makes this a race between the coronavirus and the vaccine?' Do new variants makes this a race between the coronavirus and the vaccine?
WATCH: Global BC reporter Richard Zussman asks Dr. Bonnie Henry at Monday's COVID-19 briefing about her level of concern for the quick spreading variant strains now found in the province. – Jan 25, 2021

It was only a matter of time, but a new variant of COVID-19 has been identified in the B.C. Interior for the first time, the province’s top doctor announced on Monday.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the United Kingdom’s B.1.1.7 variant has surfaced in the Interior Health region, involving a traveller from the U.K.

Read more: COVID-19 variants could be spreading across Canada. Are labs doing enough to detect them?

It was one of seven new cases of the U.K. variant identified over the weekend in B.C., bringing the total to 14.

“Contact tracing is complete,” Interior Health said in a statement.

“There are no indications of broader community spread and the case is believed to have been exposed to the variant while travelling.”

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There are four additional cases of the B1.351 South African variant in B.C. Those positive cases are in Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health.

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Growing concerns over highly transmittable coronavirus variants in B.C – Jan 25, 2021

Dr. Henry said B.C. officials have three different ways that they are looking for variant cases in the province.

“One is random sampling of surveillance of cases in areas where we are seeing increased cases and growth and outbreaks,” Dr. Henry said, giving St. Paul’s Hospital as an example.

All arriving travellers from international destinations who have tested positive for COVID-19 are also being tested for variants, and specific groups are being targeted.

Read more: What the COVID-19 variants could mean for masks, lockdowns and vaccines

“We are doing whole-genome sequencing of all cases in young people, in school-aged children,” Dr. Henry said.

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B.C. has conducted more than 11,000 whole-genome sequences in B.C., Dr. Henry said, “which is quite a high percentage compared to our cases overall.”

The U.K. variant can be detected by looking for specific mutations of the virus. That result still needs to be confirmed by sequencing the whole genome.

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Experts urger tougher travel restrictions as COVID-19 variant spreads in B.C – Jan 25, 2021

“We don’t know a lot about these variants, but we have concern that they may spread more easily then we are seeing with other strains of this virus,” Dr. Henry said.

Based on the evidence so far, researchers believe the B.1.1.7 lineage that was first discovered in the United Kingdom is up to 70 per cent more contagious than other variants.

It is not yet clear, however, if it causes more severe illness or is more lethal.

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Read more: COVID-19 variants could be spreading across Canada. Are labs doing enough to detect them?

It is natural for all viruses to mutate, as their genetic material undergoes small changes during outbreaks, experts say.

In fact, more than 10,000 mutations of the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, have been reported, Levon Abrahamyan, a virologist at the University of Montreal, told Global News.

But what makes the U.K. variant more transmissible?

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Tracking the spread of COVID-19 variants – Jan 16, 2021

Biologically, certain mutants give the spike protein of the virus — which is responsible for cell entry — a higher affinity for the receptor molecule on a healthy cell membrane, meaning the virus latches on to the human cells more effectively.

“If the attachment of a virus to the receptor is more efficient then this mutant can more readily infect more cells and that can be an explanation of why these mutants are more efficient in infecting and spreading transmission,” Abrahamyan explained.

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Dr. Henry said B.C. labs are ramping up surveillance and testing of new variants surfacing in B.C.

— With files from Global’s Saba Aziz

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