Saskatchewan

Identifying COVID-19 variants takes time, infrastructure: VIDO researcher

Seven cases of COVID-19 variants have been confirmed in Saskatchewan so far. But the long wait to test samples for virus variants is making it more difficult to track their spread in the province. 

Currently, COVID-19 samples from Saskatchewan are tested at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg

A rapid COVID-19 test device is shown in a February file photo. A research scientist at VIDO in Saskatoon says determining whether somebody has a coronavirus variant is a much more laborious process than simply determining whether they have the virus at all. (Submitted by the Prescott and Russell Residence)

Seven cases of coronavirus variants have been confirmed in Saskatchewan so far. But the long wait to test samples for virus variants is making it more difficult to track their spread in the province. 

Currently, it takes approximately two weeks to find out if a test is positive for a variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Aaron White, a research scientist at VIDO (the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization) in Saskatoon, says determining whether somebody has a variant is a much more laborious process than simply determining whether they have been infected by the coronavirus at all.

"The test to see if there's a variant is much more extensive," he said.

For most tests, "you just need to detect a piece of the virus."

"But in this case, to detect the variant, you need to construct the entire virus sequence, and that's why it takes longer." 

Another factor behind the delay is that samples that are being tested for the variant have to be shipped to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg for sequencing.

White says this was a logical way to handle the issue, as the National Microbiology Laboratory had the infrastructure in place to handle these sorts of samples well before the pandemic, and was therefore ready to hit the ground running.

Earlier this week, Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said that six per cent of COVID-19 samples, as well as travel-related cases — about 120 samples per week in total — are currently being sent to Manitoba to be screened for the variants. 

However, the Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory in Regina is currently going through certification to be able to process variant genome sequencing tests here in the province. 

White says from his perspective, the province is doing a reasonable job of handling the new need to be able to test for coronavirus variants. Rather than rushing to get systems in place, the province is taking the time to do it right, prioritizing basic "yes or no" testing capacity and relying on Manitoba's sequencing infrastructure in the meantime. 

"From a provincial perspective, they're scrambling and doing the best they can to get our capacity up to speed so that we can do this more in-depth sequencing.… It's all you can do right now," he said.

"Is there perhaps an increased amount of variant COVID-19 in Saskatchewan that we're just not detecting because of how we're doing the testing? I mean, that's always a risk, but I don't think it's anything specific to what Saskatchewan is doing." 

According to Dr. Shahab, continued adherence to public health safety measures and increasing testing are critically important tools for combating the spread of the variants, as well as the original coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

Since variants of concern were identified in Saskatchewan, the province has asked symptomatic people and out-of-province travelers to be tested immediately, rather than follow the previous guidance of isolating for 48 hours before seeking a test.

With files from Laura Sciarpelletti

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