Rise of COVID-19 variants overlooked as provinces loosened restrictions, data shows

When several provinces eased restrictions, reacting to a downward curve in overall COVID-19 cases, a rising arc of more-infectious variants was already on a trajectory to thrust Canada into a third wave of infections, a CBC News data analysis reveals.

Experts hope new surveillance measures will prepare Canada for the next phase of coronavirus mutations

A laboratory technologist holds a genome cartridge while working to sequence the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the BCCDC in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When several provinces eased restrictions in February and March, reacting to a downward curve in overall COVID-19 cases, a rising arc of more-infectious variants was already on a trajectory to thrust Canada into a third wave of infections, a CBC News data analysis reveals.

On the surface, for example, Ontario's pandemic did look to be coming under control when Premier Doug Ford stood in front of cameras on Feb. 8 to announce loosening of restrictions.

"Today we are seeing some sunlight break through the clouds," Ford told reporters.

"Daily case numbers are down. Transmission rates are down." 

But what Ontario and other provinces didn't see — or didn't act on — were variant numbers that already showed signs of growth, the data shows. 

Caroline Colijn, Canada 150 Research Chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health at Simon Fraser University, said there was too much focus on the big COVID-19 numbers which dipped from about mid-January into early March.

"People were so used to looking at the total cases," she said.

"We don't see a problem yet, or we don't see a problem at all, because that's only 10 or 20 cases here and there. But it doesn't take long."

'A brand new pandemic'

The initially small numbers behind the variant curve began a slight upward trend as the big numbers dropped, according to the data reviewed by CBC News. 

Colijn said this may have given political decision-makers a false sense of comfort.

By late March, variant red flags flew across the country. The third wave took hold, plunging the country's most populous regions into rounds of grim daily death and case tallies.

"We let the first COVID in and that was February 2020. That was probably forgivable in many ways," said Colijn.

"But maybe we shouldn't let the second type of COVID establish a brand new pandemic here."

Caroline Colijn, Canada 150 Research Chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health at Simon Fraser University, said there was too much focus on the big COVID-19 numbers which dipped from about mid-January into early March. (Courtesy of Caroline Colijn)

Colijn was part of a group of experts who, in late December 2020, recommended stringent health measures followed by planned, strategic reopenings only after daily case counts hit bottom, a strategy called Canadian Shield.

Other experts, including Ontario's scientific advisory table and Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, also warned against loosening restrictions too soon.

"The yo-yoing from lockdown to lockdown scenario that we feared would happen was exactly what happened," said Jean-Paul Soucy, a scholar in epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Hanna Gadol, 31, from Thornhill, Ont., is one of more than 102,000 Canadians who have contracted one of the variants of concern now circulating throughout the country.

Gadol is battling post COVID-19 syndrome from a variant infection caught from her teenage sister, who brought it home from school in February as restrictions loosened in the province.

"It's hitting people young, it's hitting them hard," she said.

Hanna Gadol, 31, from Thornhill, Ont., pictured here with her partner Victor Costa, is one of more than 73,000 Canadians who have contracted one of the variants of concern. (Courtesy of Hanna Gadol)

Province-by-province data

The variant first detected in the United Kingdom arrived in Canada in December, followed in January and February by the variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil. (The so-called double-mutation variant first detected in India arrived in Canada this month, but is not yet considered a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.)

As the New Year turned, so did the country's overall COVID-19 picture. The second wave crested between late December and early January and the curve sloped down into early March.

The mood among some political leaders was hopeful, while in the background, the variants began to seed. 

When Ford announced he saw clearing skies, variants comprised about 8 per cent of Ontario's total daily COVID-19 cases, according to reports from Public Health Ontario

Ten days later, they comprised about 20 per cent. By April 6, the day the province delivered another stay-at-home order, variants accounted for about 70 per cent of COVID-19 cases. 

A similar pattern evolved in Alberta

On March 8, the day Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro held his press conference announcing a further loosening of restrictions, Alberta reported 34 variant cases. The next day, there were 47 variant cases; the day after, 73. On April 6, Alberta recorded 786 new variant cases and the province again tightened its measures. 

Variants now make up more than 60 per cent of active infections in the province which now has the highest per capita COVID-19 case rate in the country. 

The same story played out in Quebec.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced a further easing of restrictions on March 16.  At the time, the province reported variants made up an estimated 30 per cent of COVID-19 cases.

Legault said he wasn't worried, but expected variants would make up more than half of Quebec's cases by the end of April. Ten days later, provincial data showed variants comprised about 54 per cent of cases.

The province began tightening restrictions on March 31.  By April 17, variants accounted for 81 per cent of cases.

British Columbia saw the sharpest pivot on COVID-19 restrictions. 

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province's chief medical health officer, announced a slight easing of restrictions around indoor religious services and in long-term care homes on March 25. She also noted that 30 per cent of people hospitalized from variant infections were being admitted into intensive care. 

Four days later, on March 29, the province announced its strongest restrictions since November 2020 and suspended indoor dining allowed since May 2020. That day B.C. reported a cumulative total of 2,233 variant cases. On April 23, the province reported a cumulative total of 6,179. 

B.C.only reports cumulative numbers of variants weekly, with no daily breakdowns or estimated percentage of new cases that are variants. This makes it hard to have a timely portrait of variant growth.

The Vancouver Coastal Health Region, which includes the resort town of Whistler, reported on April 23 a total of 1,258 cases of the P1 variant, first identified in Brazil. Whistler made international headlines after becoming the centre of the largest outbreak of P1 variant infections in the world outside Brazil. 

"We're tired," said Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton. 

"COVID-19 has been unbelievably challenging for our community, in every community, across the country."

Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton says the pandemic has hit his tourist-dependent community, and the rest of the country, hard. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Lack of data sharing between provinces

A national, public variant picture remains murky. Each provincial jurisdiction had been publicly tracking and screening in their own way, with little centralized virus data sharing. 

"It's been kind of a data black hole," said Soucy who co-authored a report on the gaps in variant data reporting. 

A centralized system would have provided a clearer national picture for public health authorities to enforce more effective measures, he said. 

"I think having those real-time variant numbers could have allowed us to ... raise the alarm a little more forcefully," he said.  

Only now is data sharing starting to change.

Genome Canada launched a new national data portal earlier this week through its Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGeN) initiative. The open-source platform centralizes data sharing of coronavirus sequences between public health labs, scientists and researchers. It's the first of its kind in the country. All provinces have agreed to share data, after months of negotiations to deal with privacy concerns and access.

"We're hoping that this data portal will further facilitate a more real-time tracking of what's going on," said lead collaborator Guillaume Bourque. All provinces have agreed to share data.

Colijn said increased sequencing and centralizing of virus data comes much too late to deal with the existing variants, but Canada will be a bit better prepared to deal with what could come — a new variant that could evade vaccines.

"We are likely the place with the largest P1 virus population bumping up against a partly immunized host population," she said, describing a scenario that could lead to such a variant.

"And if it arises elsewhere in the world it seems that we will not stop it from arriving in Canada." 

With files from Dexter McMillan and Meara Belanger

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now