Amid calls for Alberta to return to screening all positive COVID-19 cases for variants of concern, the province says it hopes to soon ramp up screening for one variant, in particular.
"The lab has been developing the capacity to do rapid screens for the B1617 [variant], which is great news," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday.
The B1617 variant, first identified in India, has been classified as a global variant of concern. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently said the rapid spread of B1617 in the United Kingdom could derail re-opening plans in that country.
Alberta used to screen all positive COVID-19 samples for variants but it ceased that practice on May 1 because of the high volume of cases at that time, which was overwhelming lab capacity.
The province has continued to screen a representative sample of positive cases to monitor the spread of several different variants of concern.
It takes additional time for a COVID-positive specimen to then be screened for variants of concern, and the tests for some variants can take longer than others. So, it's often days later that a confirmed case is identified as a particular variant.
But the province says that process will be sped up for the B1617 variant, in particular, once a new rapid-screening process comes into use.
"We are hoping to implement that process within the next week, if not sooner, and will update Albertans when it is in place," Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said in an email.
The ministry also says it is able to screen a higher percentage of cases for variants now that case counts are lower.
To date, 31 cases of the B1617 variant have been identified in Alberta.
Variants and re-opening
University of Calgary epidemiologist Kirsten Feist believes the province's recently announced reopening plan is too aggressive, in light of the continued unknowns surrounding variants.
She worries it could open the door to a surge in variant cases, in particular the B1617 strain.
Feist says the need to screen all positive cases for variants of concern is even more important now that the province plans to rely on single-doses of vaccine as a re-opening metric.
Early numbers out of the UK show the first vaccine dose is only about 33 per cent effective against this variant.
"I worry that the messaging that's coming across to people is that one dose is enough. And it's not ... it's not enough for COVID in general, let alone this variant of concern," she said.
Dr Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, also stressed that monitoring for the variant as the province reopens will be vital.
"I think that's a big risk signal that would have to be watched very carefully," she said.
"Now to be very clear we don't have a problem with that right now. But we have to know that there is a problem, and we have to know that there is a problem early."