COVID-19: WHO declares mutant virus now in B.C. is a variant of concern

Until now, the B.1.617 strain had been classified as a variant of interest. So B.C. has been testing for it, but not reporting its numbers in weekly reports

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A fast-spreading strain of COVID-19 first identified in India and already in B.C. has been classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.

This means there are now four variants of concern circulating in B.C.

“There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility,” a WHO spokesperson said at a media briefing Monday, referring to the B.1.617 mutation that is ravaging India.

“A study of a limited number of patients that has not undergone peer review also suggested that the mutant can evade some key antibodies. As such, we’re classifying this as a variant of concern at the global level.”

So this double mutation of the coronavirus is more contagious and can potentially bypass antibodies, making it harder to treat.

Until now, the B.1.617 strain had been classified as a variant of interest, so the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has been testing for it, but not reporting its numbers in weekly reports.

According to latest BCCDC data for the week ending May 1, 80 per cent of all screened samples were variants of concern, so variants have now taken over from the original virus that circulated last year. The most common variants of concern in B.C. are the B.1.1.7 first identified in the U.K. and the P.1 variant first found in Brazil. The B.1351 mutation first found in South Africa isn’t widespread in B.C.

While up-to-date numbers of B.1.617 in B.C. aren’t yet available, on April 22 provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said there had been 39 cases identified as of April 4.

She said most of these cases had been linked to travel from India, while some hadn’t been sourced.

The federal government has suspended flights from India and Pakistan due to their rising COVID-19 case counts. India has reported more than 300,000 new virus infections for the past two weeks in a row, with hospitals overflowing.

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On Monday, Henry reported 1,758 new cases of COVID-19 over the past three days and 20 deaths in B.C. There are 6,140 active cases of the disease in the province, of which 415 are being treated in hospital, including 150 in intensive care. These numbers are going down slowly as the disease’s third wave appears to have crested.

Henry said two of the people who died were in their 40s, and the others were all over 70.

There have been 2,159,103 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered, of which 106,058 are second doses. In B.C., second doses are offered up to four months after the first injection.

There are now five active COVID-19 outbreaks in health-care facilities.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said there would be more than 250,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine arriving in B.C. every week for the next month, and 141,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine on May 20.

B.C. isn’t expecting any AstraZeneca vaccine over the next week, and 40,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been withheld by Health Canada due to contamination concerns.

Anyone over 18 who lives in one of B.C.’s 29 COVID-19 hot spots can book a vaccination. The age-based program is now taking bookings for anyone 40-or-older.

Henry said that while the provincial immunization registry records the name of a person who has been given their first vaccination, it doesn’t always have contact details.

“So, we know who had Moderna, who had Pfizer, who got AstraZeneca, but our registration system has names but not contact information necessarily,” she said.

This means that if you’re not registered on the B.C. government website, and received your vaccine at a community site, then outreach workers will need to contact you to book the second dose.

— With files from Bloomberg

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