Montreal

Quebec on the hunt for new variants of coronavirus

The Quebec government is setting aside more resources and money to test for COVID-19 variants, as concern grows over the potential impact of new, more transmissible strains. 

$11M put toward new program, with 8 cases of U.K. variant now confirmed in province

Quebec is aiming to sequence about 10 per cent of positive COVID-19 cases to locate any new, more transmissible strains. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Quebec government is setting aside more resources and money to test for COVID-19 variants, as concern grows over the potential impact of new, more transmissible strains. 

So far, the province has confirmed eight cases of the U.K. variant, which is believed to be roughly 50 per cent more transmissible from person to person than the common strain of SARS-CoV-2.

The province is putting $11 million toward the program, which will be run by Quebec's institute for public health (INSPQ). 

The goal is to sequence 65,000 strains of SARS-COV-2 by the end of 2022. 

At a technical briefing Friday, Michel Roger, a microbiologist with the INSPQ, said the genome sequencing will focus in particular on travellers, superspreader events and anyone who contracts the virus despite being vaccinated.

He said his team will look for existing variants, including those that emerged in the U.K., South African and Brazil, as well as potential new ones.

Roger said there are already many variations of the virus in Quebec but that, as it stands, there is no indication a more powerful strain is widespread in the province.

"I don't have a crystal ball but for now there's no indication that it's here," he said.

The eight confirmed cases in Quebec include four members of the same family who were infected after their daughter studying in the U.K. returned home for the Christmas break. 

Premier Francois Legault has pressed the Trudeau government to ban non-essential international flights to avoid more travellers bringing variants home.

On Friday, airlines announced they had agreed to suspend some flights and Ottawa said those returning home will have to quarantine in a hotel.

Quebec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said the government is satisfied with the new measures. 

"If the federal government would have announced it earlier, we would have been pleased. But this is very good news and we thank the federal government for hearing these concerns," she said. 

Experts, however, have cautioned that variants are likely to spread inside Canada in the coming months. 

The U.K. variant, known as B117, has already spread in parts of Ontario. The province's updated modelling released Thursday said it could be the dominant strain in the province by March. 

To date, only 7,000 positive cases have been sequenced in Quebec — representing about three per cent of the total cases. The new goal is to test 10 per cent of positive cases.

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