New strains considered highly transmissible
By Jessica Berget, Assistant Editor
Despite the reportedly high transmission rates, 81 students and eight staff at a Maple Ridge high school tested negative after making contact with someone with the variant was at the school on February 3.
With reports of COVID-19 cases decreasing it looked like this pandemic might be coming to an end. That is until new and “highly contagious” strains of the virus emerged from South Africa and the UK.
Last year, on December 27, it was reported that the first known case of the new COVID-19 variant from the UK was detected in BC. Since February 5, there have been 28 variant cases found in the province—19 cases to the UK variant B.1.1.7, and nine for the South African variant B.1.351. Bonnie Henry has expressed concerns about these variants as they could cause more COVID-19 cases because of the high transmission rate and unknown effect against vaccines. Henry also says most of the variant cases were acquired locally but were all in contact with people who recently travelled; sources for five cases however have been unidentified.
Henry attributes the new variant cases as a reason to increase case surveillance and testing and has also extended the province’s ban on social gatherings at least until the end of the month once again. Among these new testing and surveillance methods, Henry says they are targeting specific groups such as genome sequence testing for school children, testing all COVID-19 positive international travellers for the variants, as well as random sampling of cases in places where outbreaks are observed.
The UK variant can be found by looking for specific virus mutations through whole genome sequencing. Genome sequencing means determining the order of the DNA’s nucleotides and is considered similar to decoding or like doing a giant puzzle (the human genome is made up of about three billion genetic letters). The province has done more than 11,000 genome sequence tests and has said that the variant cases are considered to be contained.
Numbers on the new UK strain transmission rate has been reported to be up to 50 and 70 percent more than the normal COVID-19 strain. It remains unclear whether the new strain is more lethal or makes people sicker. Despite the reportedly high transmission rates, 81 students and eight staff at a Maple Ridge high school tested negative after making contact with someone with the variant was at the school on February 3. The same day, Henry made masks mandatory in BC high and middle schools in places where interactions cannot be controlled. Masks continue to not be mandatory for elementary students but are for staff.
According to health experts, it is normal for all viruses to mutate as they go through changes during outbreak. In a Global News article, Levon Abrahamyan, a virologist from the University of Montreal explains that more than 10,000 mutations of the novel coronavirus have been reported.