A person wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 is silhouetted against B.C. Place stadium while walking over a pedestrian bridge on False Creek, in Vancouver, on Friday, April 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A person wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 is silhouetted against B.C. Place stadium while walking over a pedestrian bridge on False Creek, in Vancouver, on Friday, April 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Experts say COVID variants likely make up 40% of B.C.’s cases, double what officials have disclosed

The B.1.1.7 variant alone makes up a third of B.C.’s cases. It’s expected to reach 60%, catching up with Ontario in about a month.

British Columbia is severely under-reporting the number of COVID-19 cases that are variants of concern, limiting the public’s awareness of the threat, experts say.

Sarah Otto, a University of British Columbia professor who has done COVID-19 modelling, said the province’s reliance on time-consuming whole-genome sequencing to confirm variant cases is not necessary.

She said the PCR test used to identify all COVID-19 cases in the province already detects a mutation that the three major variants of concern have in common. B.C. could also adopt a newer method to distinguish between the variants as part of the test, she added.

Instead, the province only reports cases once they’ve been confirmed through whole-genome sequencing. Otto said she doesn’t believe B.C. has the capacity to sequence all presumptive variant cases identified by the PCR test, and is under-reporting them as a result.

Sharing timely, complete information about these more-transmissible variants would help enlist more B.C. residents in the “concerted effort” needed to curb the spread, Otto said.

“If a patient comes into the hospital and knows it’s a variant, then you already know the person is at basically double the risk, and so doctors should be treating the cases more cautiously,” she said.

“As well, if you just got it and you realize you’re carrying a variant, people may just be that much more cautious in the way that we want.”

B.C. has reported 3,766 cases that are variants of concern to date, including 2,837 of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, 51 of the B. 1.351 strain first detected in South Africa and 878 of the P. 1 variant first found in Brazil.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday that 266 variant cases are active, just three per cent of overall active cases.

However, in the same briefing, she also said the B.1.1.7 variant makes up a third of B.C.’s cases and she expects it to reach 60 per cent, catching up with Ontario, in about a month.

Jens von Bergmann, a mathematician who does data analysis, said the three per cent figure is a “meaningless” number. The province is not sequencing all variant cases, and for those it does sequence, they are likely no longer active by the time the work is done, he said.

He said B.1.1.7 making up a third of B.C.’s infections sounds more accurate, although he suspected that data was a week or two old. Both he and Otto believe variant cases represent about 50 per cent of current infections in the province.

A preprint paper done by BC Centre for Disease Control scientists shows that publicly reported figures of variants of concern are lower than those captured by the PCR test.

The paper, recently posted on a public server ahead of formal peer review, says that 23 presumptive variant cases were identified by the PCR test the week of Jan. 31, representing just over one per cent of infections.

For the week of Feb. 28, there were 434 presumptive variant cases, or 12.2 per cent of infections, the paper says.

The authors of the paper concluded that there was a “high concordance” between PCR testing and whole-genome sequencing, and that a combined testing approach was feasible.

The BC Centre for Disease Control did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In contrast with the figures in the paper, Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix reported that the province had only seen 14 variant cases by the end of January, with that number growing to 158 by the end of February.

On March 25, Henry said the percentage of variant cases was in the “high teens” to “early 20s.”

Otto and von Bergmann both said that given the exponential growth of variants of concern, it’s likely that they now account for about half of active cases.

Henry said Tuesday the province screens about 90 per cent of positive tests for the mutation associated with the three major variants of concern. All of the samples that contain the mutation undergo whole-genome sequencing, she said.

Otto said she believed that Henry’s remarks were based on outdated information.

“I know that they intended to sequence everything that had come up as a variant. That was possible when it was just a few cases or a few hundred cases. But we’re getting into the region where it’s a few thousand cases a week,” she said.

Ontario reports daily on the variant cases identified by PCR testing. It is able to detect cases involving B.1.1.7 based on the test alone, but must do whole-genome sequencing to distinguish between P. 1 and B. 1.351.

Henry said reporting variants of concern based on the PCR test would provide an “inflated” figure because other variants also contain the mutation that the three major ones share.

But von Bergmann noted that the BC Centre for Disease Control paper showed that one out of 23 presumptive variants of concern identified by the PCR test was found to be a non-variant of concern following whole-genome sequencing.

At the same time, he pointed out, another one of those 23 could not undergo sequencing because there wasn’t enough genetic material.

“It cuts both ways and we are giving an extremely deflated count right now.”

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Machinery could be seen working to clear land behind a pair of houses on Main Street for the future site of the Shuswap and Secwepmc Healing Centre, a medical facility on Friday, April 9. The Sicamous Fire Department has been using the buildings for training exercises ahead of their demolition. (Jim Elliot/Eagle Valley News)
Snapshot: Clearing space

Land is being cleared for a new medical centre on Sicamous’ Main Street.

Winter driving conditions returned to the Coquihalla Highway on April 10. (ICBC image)
Coquihalla motorists warned of fresh snow

Five to 10 cm of snow is expected today for the mountain highway.

B.C's COVID-19 dashboard shows the peaks and valleys of cases prior to the record daily report of 132 on April 9, 2021. (Dashboard image)
Interior Health has record day of COVID-19 cases

132 cases reported Friday, April 9, more deaths in Vernon hospital outbreak

School District 83 trustees are leaning towards an option in the school district’s Long Range Facilities Plan that favours making Salmon Arm Secondary’s Sullivan campus and Jackson campus (pictured) both Grade 9-12 schools. (Google maps image)
Letter: Two high school option for Salmon Arm will create ‘have, have not’ situation

Writer concerned with E5 option, says transparent talk about implications needed

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.[CDC]
More COVID-19 exposures reported at schools in Kelowna

Interior Health added additional schools and dates to their list of exposures

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Sun Peaks is tracking rising COVID-19 cases. (Kamloops This Week Photo)
Sun Peaks sees spike in COVID-19 cases at end of ski season

On April 9, there were 15 positive cases confirmed.

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Most Read