A person wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 is silhouetted against B.C. Place stadium while walking over a pedestrian bridge on False Creek, in Vancouver, on Friday, April 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A person wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 is silhouetted against B.C. Place stadium while walking over a pedestrian bridge on False Creek, in Vancouver, on Friday, April 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Experts say COVID variants likely make up 40% of B.C.’s cases, double what officials have disclosed

The B.1.1.7 variant alone makes up a third of B.C.’s cases. It’s expected to reach 60%, catching up with Ontario in about a month.

British Columbia is severely under-reporting the number of COVID-19 cases that are variants of concern, limiting the public’s awareness of the threat, experts say.

Sarah Otto, a University of British Columbia professor who has done COVID-19 modelling, said the province’s reliance on time-consuming whole-genome sequencing to confirm variant cases is not necessary.

She said the PCR test used to identify all COVID-19 cases in the province already detects a mutation that the three major variants of concern have in common. B.C. could also adopt a newer method to distinguish between the variants as part of the test, she added.

Instead, the province only reports cases once they’ve been confirmed through whole-genome sequencing. Otto said she doesn’t believe B.C. has the capacity to sequence all presumptive variant cases identified by the PCR test, and is under-reporting them as a result.

Sharing timely, complete information about these more-transmissible variants would help enlist more B.C. residents in the “concerted effort” needed to curb the spread, Otto said.

“If a patient comes into the hospital and knows it’s a variant, then you already know the person is at basically double the risk, and so doctors should be treating the cases more cautiously,” she said.

“As well, if you just got it and you realize you’re carrying a variant, people may just be that much more cautious in the way that we want.”

B.C. has reported 3,766 cases that are variants of concern to date, including 2,837 of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, 51 of the B. 1.351 strain first detected in South Africa and 878 of the P. 1 variant first found in Brazil.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday that 266 variant cases are active, just three per cent of overall active cases.

However, in the same briefing, she also said the B.1.1.7 variant makes up a third of B.C.’s cases and she expects it to reach 60 per cent, catching up with Ontario, in about a month.

Jens von Bergmann, a mathematician who does data analysis, said the three per cent figure is a “meaningless” number. The province is not sequencing all variant cases, and for those it does sequence, they are likely no longer active by the time the work is done, he said.

He said B.1.1.7 making up a third of B.C.’s infections sounds more accurate, although he suspected that data was a week or two old. Both he and Otto believe variant cases represent about 50 per cent of current infections in the province.

A preprint paper done by BC Centre for Disease Control scientists shows that publicly reported figures of variants of concern are lower than those captured by the PCR test.

The paper, recently posted on a public server ahead of formal peer review, says that 23 presumptive variant cases were identified by the PCR test the week of Jan. 31, representing just over one per cent of infections.

For the week of Feb. 28, there were 434 presumptive variant cases, or 12.2 per cent of infections, the paper says.

The authors of the paper concluded that there was a “high concordance” between PCR testing and whole-genome sequencing, and that a combined testing approach was feasible.

The BC Centre for Disease Control did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In contrast with the figures in the paper, Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix reported that the province had only seen 14 variant cases by the end of January, with that number growing to 158 by the end of February.

On March 25, Henry said the percentage of variant cases was in the “high teens” to “early 20s.”

Otto and von Bergmann both said that given the exponential growth of variants of concern, it’s likely that they now account for about half of active cases.

Henry said Tuesday the province screens about 90 per cent of positive tests for the mutation associated with the three major variants of concern. All of the samples that contain the mutation undergo whole-genome sequencing, she said.

Otto said she believed that Henry’s remarks were based on outdated information.

“I know that they intended to sequence everything that had come up as a variant. That was possible when it was just a few cases or a few hundred cases. But we’re getting into the region where it’s a few thousand cases a week,” she said.

Ontario reports daily on the variant cases identified by PCR testing. It is able to detect cases involving B.1.1.7 based on the test alone, but must do whole-genome sequencing to distinguish between P. 1 and B. 1.351.

Henry said reporting variants of concern based on the PCR test would provide an “inflated” figure because other variants also contain the mutation that the three major ones share.

But von Bergmann noted that the BC Centre for Disease Control paper showed that one out of 23 presumptive variants of concern identified by the PCR test was found to be a non-variant of concern following whole-genome sequencing.

At the same time, he pointed out, another one of those 23 could not undergo sequencing because there wasn’t enough genetic material.

“It cuts both ways and we are giving an extremely deflated count right now.”

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Grade 12 LSS student Catherine Sampson, Grade 8 LSS student Cianna Vincent, and LSS Aboriginal Education teacher Brenda Kohlruss led the LSS ceremony honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. (Cole Schisler photo)
Ladysmith Secondary ceremony honours missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

A small ceremony was held in the LSS foyer on the National Day of Awareness for MMIWG

Peter and Wayne Richmond and 49th Parallel Grocery won the award for Business Achievement 20+ Employees at the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce’s 22nd Black Tie Awards on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Submitted)
Ladysmith businesses recognized at Black Tie Awards

Black Tie Awards are given annually by the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce

Ladysmith’s Town Council met on May 4 and set a 0.52 percent increase for 2021 property taxes. (Town of Ladysmith/YouTube)
Town of Ladysmith adopts 0.52 percent tax increase for 2021

Mayor Aaron Stone praises the increase as among the ‘lowest in the province’

The CVRD introduces new app to contact residents during emergencies. (CVRD photo)
CVRD launches new app to spread information during emergencies

Cowichan Alert is a free app that can be downloaded onto smartphones, computers

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
Unlawful entry triggers heart condition for Ladysmith woman

An intoxicated man entered the Lavines’ apartment in the middle of the afternoon

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

Vivian Hermansen, Snuneymuxw First Nation, initiator of petition e-3281. Photo by Karen Evans.
Status card wait times an example of systemic racism, says Campbell River woman

Snuneymuxw woman launches petition as people waiting up to two years, as passports take three weeks

Flow Academy is located at 1511 Sutherland Avenue in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez/Capital News)
Interior Health locks out Kelowna martial arts gym following COVID violations

Actions were taken after all other steps to gain compliance were exhausted, says health authority

A man who allegedly spat at and yelled racial slurs at an Asian family was arrested for hate-motivated assault Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
Arrest made after man spits, yells anti-Asian racial slurs at Victoria mom and kids

The man was arrested for hate-motivated assault near Quadra Elementary School Tuesday

A lady wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada may find it challenging to reach herd immunity from COVID-19, experts say

Level of immunity among the population changes with the variants, especially the more transmissible strains

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
Clash between loggers, activists halts forestry operations over Fairy Creek

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

The courthouse in Nanaimo, B.C. (News Bulletin file)
Island man sentenced in Nanaimo after causing a dog unnecessary pain and suffering

Kiefer Tyson Giroux, 26, of Nanoose Bay, given six-month sentence

Following a one-year pause due to the pandemic, the Snowbirds were back in the skies over the Comox Valley Wednesday (May 5) morning. Photo by Erin Haluschak
Video: Snowbirds hold first training session in Comox Valley in more than 2 years

The team will conduct their training from May 4 to 26 in the area

Most Read