'Exponential growth' of virus variants to the west could signal what's coming for Manitoba

The provinces west of Manitoba have seen rapidly rising cases of coronavirus variants. That's why health researchers are urging governments to hold off on lifting pandemic restrictions until more people receive a vaccine.

Health researchers in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan urge Manitoba to heed lessons on easing pandemic rules

An electron microscope image shows the virus that causes COVID-19. More than half of Manitoba's cases of coronavirus variants of concern have been reported in the last week. (The Canadian Press/NIAID-RML via AP)

Canada's three westernmost provinces have seen rapidly rising cases of coronavirus variants, sometimes doubling within weeks, and Manitobans should expect the same thing to happen here, health researchers caution.

That's why they all urge governments in their own provinces to hold off on lifting pandemic restrictions until more people receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

In Alberta, the B117 coronavirus variant, which was first found in the United Kingdom, is on its way to becoming the dominant strain of the virus, said Dr. Noel Gibney.

"Basically these variants, it's inevitable," said Gibney, a retired intensive care physician and co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association pandemic committee.

The variant currently makes up about 12 per cent of all active cases in Alberta. In urban centres, that number is more than 20 per cent, Gibney said. Alberta reported 696 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, after reporting 505 on Thursday and 479 Wednesday.

The province has so far identified 1,318 cases involving highly infectious variants of the virus, including 130 reported Friday.

"We estimate that they are doubling about every two weeks," Gibney said. "This is clearly very concerning, because this variant is much more transmissible and also causes more serious disease, and potentially death."

As of Friday, Manitoba has identified 76 coronavirus variant cases. All but four have been in the Winnipeg region. More than half of those cases were reported within the last week.

There were 29 active variant cases in Manitoba as of Friday, including 25 in the Winnipeg region.

The rising number of variant cases comes as the Manitoba government contemplates moving the province out of its red-level restrictions, which have been in place for more than four months. Possible changes include increasing outdoor gathering sizes from 10 to 25 and allowing indoor theatres and casinos to open. 

If the province pulls back on public health measures, Manitoba runs the risk of being overtaken by one of the more contagious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, just as the vaccine program ramps up, Gibney said.

"Even if you don't have further release of restrictions, you're going to have progressive increases in the number of variants because the increase that you've seen has been with these restrictions," he said.

Relaxed rules 'opposite to what we should be doing'

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Saskatchewan, is urging his provincial government not to go ahead with further relaxing of restrictions.

"With variants now threatening to take off, it's exactly the opposite to what we should be doing," he said. In fact, he wants the government to tighten health orders, at least until more people get vaccinated.

Last Friday, Saskatchewan had 144 presumptive and confirmed coronavirus variant cases.

As of Friday, that number had soared to 664 — 156 confirmed cases and 508 presumptive — the majority of which are in Regina.

"We are clearly seeing exponential growth of variant-driven COVID-19 cases in Regina, and this is happening simultaneously at a time when the province has relaxed some restrictions," said Muhajarine.

University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine says he'd like to see his province tighten, not relax, current pandemic restrictions. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Last week, the Saskatchewan government increased the indoor gathering limit from five to 10, with bubbles of up to three households allowed. At the same time, Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab cautioned that only those in need of social support should create bubbles. 

The province recommends that Regina and area residents, particularly those over age 50, refrain from increasing their household bubbles and consider gathering with their household only.

"On the one hand … these restrictions have been relaxed and lifted, actually, in private gatherings. And on the other hand, they are introducing exceptions, or nuance," said Muhajarine.

Variants muddy risk, benefits balance: prof

On Thursday, Manitoba's top doctor said while there are risks involved in easing restrictions, there are also risks with leaving strict rules in place for too long.

"We're constantly trying to find that right balance, knowing that we just can't live in a lockdown forever. And this virus isn't going to be going away in two months, either," Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at a news conference.

Governments should wait until more people have been vaccinated before easing restrictions, because it's still unclear how these new variants will behave, said Horacio Bach, an infectious diseases professor at the University of British Columbia.

"Always you have risks and benefits, of course. But we are just touching in the darkness because we don't know," he said.

B.C. announced 68 new COVID-19 cases involving variants of concern Friday, bringing its provincial total to 1,200. Of those, 149 are active.

On Thursday, the province eased restrictions for the first time in four months to allow groups of 10 outside. 

Bach urged people to be patient as vaccine rollouts progress.

"At this point we don't know the behaviour of the variant. We know that we have to vaccinate as fast as possible. The more you vaccinate, the less probability of the virus to reach a new person or host."

Manitoba reported Friday that 123,144 doses of vaccine have been administered in the province — 83,641 first doses and 39,503 second doses.

Muhajarine called on people and governments across the country to "stay the course" for a little while longer.

"We can see the end of this pandemic, which we couldn't see last year. We can see the end because of the vaccine, but we are not there yet."


Cameron MacLean is a journalist for CBC Manitoba living in Winnipeg, where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience reporting in the city and across Manitoba, covering a wide range of topics, including courts, politics, housing, arts, health and breaking news. Email story tips to

With files from Bryce Hoye, Michelle Ghossoub, Mickey Djuric and Laura Sciarpelletti


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