British Columbia

B.C. identifies 1st COVID-19 case infected with variant detected in U.K.

British Columbia has identified the first case of a person infected with the COVID-19 variant first detected in the United Kingdom after the person returned from Britain on Dec. 15.

Individual returned to the Island Health region from Britain on Dec. 15

Passengers arrive through the international arrivals gate at Vancouver International Airport earlier this year. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

British Columbia health authorities confirmed on Sunday the first known case of a resident infected with a variant of the COVID-19 virus first identified in the United Kingdom.

The individual, who lives in the Island Health region, returned from the U.K. on Air Canada Flight AC855 on Dec. 15.

The person developed symptoms while in a mandatory 14-day quarantine and was subsequently tested. The positive diagnosis was confirmed on Dec. 19. 

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease expert at the University of British Columbia, said it's not unexpected that a case of the new variant was discovered in the province, and there will likely be more across Canada, the United States and around the world.

He said the challenge will be identifying those cases and ensuring that rates of transmission are kept low.

"If it's early in the days of it being here in Canada, for example, we still have a great opportunity to quash it out, and stop those chains of transmission so that it doesn't become the dominant strain here," said Murthy, an associate professor at UBC's Faculty of Medicine. "But that opportunity is right now." 

1st cases reported Saturday

Ontario was the first Canadian province to report the new variant. Two confirmed cases are from a couple from Durham Region, east of Toronto, with no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contacts, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, said in a news release on Saturday. 

Ontario's Ministry of Health reported a third case Sunday, which was linked to a person in Ottawa who recently travelled from the U.K., bringing the total in Canada  to four.

In a joint statement Sunday, B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said there is no evidence the new COVID-19 variant is more likely to cause severe illness, nor is there evidence to suggest the approved vaccines will be any less effective against the new variant.

"All British Columbians have to remember the virus spreads quickly but shows up slowly. By staying local, avoiding all non-essential travel and using our layers of protection, we can reduce the potential for a surge in new cases and keep our communities and loved ones safe."

Close contacts with the person identified in B.C. have been isolated, and Island Health says it is following up with them daily.

Flights from U.K. halted

The federal government has halted all incoming flights from the U.K. until at least Jan. 6. With domestic cases now being identified, Murthy doesn't see a need to limit inter-provincial travel as long as contact tracing and isolation protocols are being closely followed.

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, associate professor at UBC's Faculty of Medicine, says finding cases of a new variant of the COVID-19 virus in British Columbia was to be expected after it was discovered in Ontario. (Enzo Zanatta/CBC News)

However, he said it may be an argument for expanding or extending B.C.'s current restrictions on gatherings and travel within the province, which are set to expire on Jan. 8.

"I think looking at our numbers here in British Columbia, numbers across the country, while they may be declining it would be great to see them decline even further, particularly with this strain coming around to make sure that we can have a few months of winter before everyone gets vaccinated without too much more spikes in cases," Murthy said,

As per the latest update on Dec. 24, the seven-day average for new cases in the province was still at 547, with 341 people hospitalized.

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