Contagious new COVID-19 variant linked to outbreaks in Abitibi-Témiscamingue

Quebec has confirmed its first two cases of the more transmissible variant of COVID-19 that was initially identified in South Africa.

Health officials say they have broken the transmission chain and situation is under control

This is the first time the variant originally found in South Africa, also known as B1351, has been detected in Quebec. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A wave of COVID-19 infections that hit Quebec's Abitibi-Témiscamingue region last month has been traced to one of the new, more contagious variants of the disease.

Local health officials in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, which is more than 400 kilometres northwest of Montreal, said they had discovered two cases of a variant first identified in South Africa among samples taken in early January.

Shortly after the Christmas holidays, when Quebec had temporarily relaxed public health measures, the Abitibi saw a sharp increase in infections.

Contact tracing investigations into an outbreak at a party, and another at a fast-food restaurant, appeared to show exposure to the virus was leading to higher infection rates than usual in a region that had all but stamped out the pandemic in late fall.

It sufficiently alarmed officials that they sent two samples from the positive tests to the provincial public health research institute, the INSPQ, for genome sequencing.

Dr. Omobola Sobanjo, Abitibi-Témiscamingue's medical officer, said that according to preliminary results as many as 30 infections could be directly associated with the two confirmed cases of the variant. (Catou Mackinnon/CBC)

The results marked the first time the variant originally found in South Africa, also known as B1351, has been detected in Quebec.

Dr. Omobola Sobanjo, the health region's medical advisor, said that according to preliminary results as many as 30 infections could be directly associated with those two confirmed cases of the variant.

"We didn't send all the cases associated with the outbreaks for sequencing because we first wanted more information," Sobanjo said at a briefing on Tuesday.

"Now that we have confirmation the two cases are linked to the South African variant we have started drawing a picture of the other people associated with those two cases." She added that neither of the cases had a history of international travel.

Abitibi-Témiscamingue is among several outlying areas in the province where public health measures were relaxed earlier this week because of lower infection rates. Unlike in Montreal and Quebec City, residents there can now in eat in restaurants and visit gyms in small groups.

The Abitibi outbreaks tied to the variant have since been contained, and the two infected patients are considered to have recovered, said Lyse Landry, the region's public health director.

She said that as long as residents continue to follow the distancing and masking rules that are still in place, there will be no need to re-impose harsher restrictions.

"For the moment the situation is under control," Landry said.

Quebec pushed to increase screening for variants

Quebec had previously confirmed eight cases of the variant first isolated in the United Kingdom. That variant, B117, is believed to be roughly 50 per cent more transmissible from person to person than the more common strains of SARS-CoV-2 that are currently dominant in Quebec.

The B1351 variant is also believed to be more contagious than the dominant strains, in addition to containing a mutation that makes it more resistant to some vaccines.

The variants are being detected as Quebec's infection rates are decreasing, and the government is relaxing restrictions across the province, though less so in urban areas.

"It's clear that the new variants are associated with more contagion and higher mortality. It worries us, because if we let them go, we'll return to seeing a lot of pressure on the health care system," the provincial public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, said Tuesday.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's director of public health, said Tuesday the province will increase the amount of samples it tests for new variants of COVID-19. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

There are concerns, though, that Quebec is not doing enough to see if variants are spreading more widely than the current tallies indicate.

At the moment, the province is only sequencing around eight per cent of the samples taken from positive COVID-19 tests. Arruda said the goal is to increase that figure to 15 per cent in the next two or three weeks.

Other provinces, including Ontario, have opted to also conduct a cheaper process, known as screening, on all positive samples. Using both methods, Ontario has found more than 150 cases of the B117 variant alone.

Screening simply detects the presence of a variant. Genome sequencing, which is more time consuming, allows scientists to identify which variant has been detected.

"Why aren't we doing what Ontario is doing?" asked Marie Montpetit, health critic for the opposition Liberals.

"It's utopian to think there are only 10 cases [of the variant] at the moment," she said Tuesday morning, before the new cases were announced.

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