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Opinion: 'Variants of concern' an emerging B.C. COVID-19 issue

Few cases right now, but they could spread fast, says Keith Baldrey
A positive swab test for COVID-19. Photo: Getty Images

A new phrase has entered our pandemic lexicon and it is a concerning one.

Get used to hearing “variants of concern” more often in the weeks ahead. If we hear it too much from Dr. Bonnie Henry and other public health officials, that will be a sign that our pandemic has taken a dark turn.

The phrase refers to emerging variants (mutations) of the COVID-19 virus. For the most part, they are considered more transmissible and, in some cases, may be more dangerous.

So far, we have had few cases of a variant virus in B.C., but a year ago we had few COVID-19 cases and since then, we have had more than 70,000 cases that put more than 3,600 people in hospital and killed more than 1,240.

Documents produced by Henry at the briefing at the end of last week show 19 cases of the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) and nine cases of the South African variant (B.1.351) had been detected in B.C.

Again, not a lot of cases. However, they had more than doubled in number in the space of a couple of weeks, a reminder of how fast viruses can spread.

The majority of U.K. variant cases (14) were traced back to travel from that country, but most (eight) of the South African variants are of local origin and public health officials have yet to determine where they originated.

Two other variants have yet to enter British Columbia - or at least none have been detected. The Brazilian variant (P.1) was detected in one case in Toronto this past weekend and another case was found in Minnesota.

The Brazilian variant appears particularly nasty. It has overwhelmed the rainforest city of Manaus, with hospitals overrun and deaths occurring rapidly. A country that thought the worst (230,000 people have died there) was over when it came to COVID-19 is now discovering the opposite seems to be happening.

Another variant, the Danish L452R (also known as the California variant), has recently taken hold in parts of California and is considered to be responsible for a majority of cases in some counties there. A chief concern about this variant is that truck travel from California to B.C. is a major part of our supply chain.

The U.K. variant now represents 20% of the cases in Belgium and they are increasing by 70% a week in Denmark.

Even if we continue to gradually bend the curve of COVID-19 (our daily case count is down by more than 300 since late November and our hospitalizations are down more than 100), it is possible a significant increase in variant viruses could undo all that effort.

At her briefing at the end of last week, Henry offered some hope that if we continue to improve our COVID-19 situation we could return to the “safe six” model by the end of the month. However, she also offered a glum warning.

“If we start to see one of these variants take off, then all bets are off and we may need to actually increase some of the restrictions that we have in place,” she said.

Public health officials say the next six weeks are critical. We are slowly but surely wrestling COVID-19 down a bit, but its mutations may now pose the biggest risk of all.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.