New testing shows more infectious variant present in Manitoba weeks before it was announced
1st unknown acquisition case of B1351 variant found through retrospective testing
One of the more infectious variant strains of the novel coronavirus had been spreading for at least two weeks in Manitoba before it was first announced by public health officials.
Manitoba's first two cases of the B1351 variant, which was first identified in South Africa, were announced by public health officials March 2. But retrospective screening of previous COVID-positive samples has revealed that particular variant was present much earlier.
"The first unknown acquisition case was reported Feb. 12, and was found through retrospective screening. It was sequenced March 3 and was B1351," a Manitoba government spokesperson told CBC News in an email.
"It's concerning," said Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, citing that the variant strains of SARS-CoV-2 have shown to be more transmissible and potentially lead to more severe outcomes for people who contract them.
The first cases of a coronavirus variant were reported in Manitoba Feb. 9, when a confirmed case of the B117 variant, first reported in the United Kingdom, was discovered after someone returned from international travel.
On March 8, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced that all positive COVID-19 cases reported since the beginning of February could be screened for the B117 and B1351 variants. No cases of the P1 variant, first reported in Brazil, have been announced in Manitoba.
As of Tuesday, the province has identified 55 cases of variants of concern in Manitoba: 43 cases of the B117 variant and 12 of the B1351 variant.
The province says 18 cases are dated prior to March 1.
Twelve of the cases are considered community spread, which mean how the person acquired the infection is unknown.
Variants raise questions
Provincial officials have committed to being able to give all adults their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of June, and the government is loosening public health restrictions after being under code red for the majority of the winter.
But community spread of variants of concern put the latter into question now, said Kindrachuk.
"This variant, it doesn't have superpowers. We know that the requirements as far as masking and distancing — all those things still apply. Vaccination will help us with transmission," he said.
"But we also have to make choices. That's at the individual level, at the provincial level for how to deal with this — and those decisions probably have to be made fairly quickly, depending on how rapidly the cases continue to climb."
Health experts have recently warned of a potential third wave of COVID-19 now that variant strains of the novel coronavirus are being reported in Manitoba.
A third wave is not inevitable, Kindrachuk says, but to avoid it people must adhere to public health rules and catching potential virus spreaders as early as possible. The weather starting to warm up will also help, because people can start moving outside socially.
"In the face of all of the loosening restrictions and everything that we've been through for the last year, my real message is: we've come this far. We don't want to take two steps back for every step that we take," he said.
To help curb further spread of variants of concern in the meantime, contact tracing and testing has to ramp up in order to catch positive cases before they can spread the illness, said Carlos Farkas, a U of M post-doctoral fellow who researches novel coronavirus variants.
The public should also double-down on public health guidance, such as practising physical distancing, proper hand hygiene and wearing masks, said Farkas.
"This scenario has been replicated in other countries," he said, and it has led to the variant strains of SARS-CoV-2 becoming the dominant strains in circulation.
"That's a problem. That's our Achilles heel. To actually cope with this virus, we cannot do the same. All the procedures that have been put in place, we need to redouble efforts."