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Halifax microbiology lab looks at building capacity to test for COVID-19 variants

Click to play video 'Nova Scotia looking at capacity to test COVID-19 variants' Nova Scotia looking at capacity to test COVID-19 variants
WATCH: Two new cases of the B.1.1.7. variant of coronavirus, first found in the U.K., have been confirmed in Nova Scotia, prompting public health to reopen the investigation and ask members of the public who may have been exposed to be tested again. – Feb 11, 2021

As more and more cases of COVID-19 variants are being discovered across the country, Halifax is considering the benefits of building testing capacity locally.

Every two weeks Nova Scotia sends its positive COVID-19 samples to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg for genome sequencing testing, to determine if any of the samples test positive for a variant strain of the virus.

On Wednesday two cases of the  B.1.1.7. COVID-19 variant, which was first identified in the U.K., were detected in samples that were gathered from Nova Scotia’s Central Zone. Health officials said the cases relate to two infections identified back in January, where the individuals have since recovered.

Read more: Variant from U.K. could ‘threaten vaccination’ and ‘sweep the world’: expert

The initial investigation failed to determine a source for the infections and so public health has reopened the investigation, with the hope of tracing the source of the virus.

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Nova Scotia Health says the two cases and their close contacts will be re-interviewed. Health officials are concerned, since the U.K. variant and other COVID-19 mutations have proven to be more infectious.

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“This (U.K.) variant has a couple of mutations, on what’s known as the spike protein of the virus,” said Dr. Austin Zygmunt, public health resident doctor with Nova Scotia Public Health.

“It’s that spike protein that attaches to cells in the body and so these mutations have made it easier to attach inside the body, which makes it easier to transmit.”

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Dr. Todd Hatchette oversees COVID-19 testing at the QE ll Microbiology Lab in Halifax and says it comes as no surprise that we’re seeing COVID-19 variants pop up in Nova Scotia.

“This is a new virus that has been in humans for only less than a year, that we’re aware of and it will continue to adapt to us so that it can transmit more easily — its goal is to go forth and replicate,” said Hatchette.

Nova Scotia doesn’t have the capacity at its QE ll Microbiology Lab to test for COVID-19 variants at this point, but it is something the province is closely examining says Hatchette.

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“We have very few specimens (COVID-19 cases) which makes it more difficult to do high volume (genome) sequencing which is really required to make it cost-effective,” said Hatchette. “But we are looking at bringing sequencing into the province so that we can do it here rather than sending it out of the province.”

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With the two cases of the U.K. variant identified Wednesday, it means there are now three cases of the U.K. variant identified in Nova Scotia, along with one case of the South African variant which was detected last month.

Read more: Coronavirus: Nova Scotia identifies 2 cases of U.K. COVID-19 variant

The detection and identifying of variant cases can cause anxiety among the population, but Hatchette says the emergence of these COVID-19 mutations doesn’t change the way we deal with the virus from a public health perspective, suggesting that genome testing is more of a surveillance strategy to monitor the virus.

“Realistically we don’t do anything differently if we know that it’s a variant,” said Hatchette. “We treat them the same, we use the same prevention strategies, and so waiting two weeks or three weeks (for the genome sequencing) is not a huge issue from a public health prevention strategy.”

Hatchette’s advice is to continue with the same public health protocols we’ve been following all along, like washing your hands, staying two metres apart, keeping a small social bubble and wearing a mask, in order to protect against the spread of the virus.