B.C. quietly updated the number of variant cases of coronavirus detected in the province on Friday, confirming six cases of the variant first reported in the U.K. and three cases of the variant from South Africa.
Variants identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil are transmitting much more easily than the original strain, with data on the U.K. variant suggesting it is 50 per cent more transmissible from person to person than the common strain of SARS-CoV-2.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged the presence of the variants in B.C. during Friday's news conference, which focused on the province's plan to rollout vaccines to the general population.
She said all cases of the variant from the U.K. are travel-related, but none of the variants first detected in South Africa have been linked to travel.
"Those are concerning. If we start to see rapid increase again, there's potential for these variants to [take hold], so this is just a way of saying we all have to be really careful right now," she said.
The updated numbers were not provided during Friday's press conference, but were listed in the B.C. Centre for Disease Control's written COVID-19 situation report on Friday. As of Thursday, there had been four instances in B.C. of the variant from the U.K. and one of the variant from South Africa.
B.C. laboratories are currently working on fast-tracking how they test for new, more infectious coronavirus mutations, and laboratories at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control are ramping up their capacity to identify cases of the new mutations.
But Andrew Longhurst, a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University and a health policy researcher, said that if some cases are not travel-related, it suggests variants could be spreading in the community unchecked — a situation he says should be addressed urgently.
Watch | What are coronavirus variants and how are they tracked in B.C.?
"I'm quite unclear as to why we're not taking more urgent action and why the discovery of new cases of these variants are not being communicated clearly or directly," he said.
Longhurst said health officials should be candid about the fact that the current plan to rollout vaccines doesn't mean the province won't experience high numbers of cases throughout the spring if more infectious variants begin spreading widely in the community.
"I'm optimistic about the vaccine rollout — but the bottom line is the timeline of the vaccinations doesn't line up with the emergence of the variants and how rapidly they're likely to spread in communities," he said.
Calls for 'managed quarantine'
Currently, only five per cent of samples in Canada are tested for coronavirus variants. There have been dozens of cases of variants confirmed in Canada in recent weeks, with several having no link to travel.
On Saturday, genome sequencing confirmed that the coronavirus variant from the U.K. was present at a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., where all but 2 of 129 residents have tested positive for the virus. As of Saturday, there had been 32 deaths at the home.
"You only have to look at the news from other jurisdictions to know what is likely to happen if these variants take hold," said Longhurst.
"I'm quite alarmed and I think we have a chance of having a very challenging spring ahead of us."
Longhurst said B.C. should consider moving to a system used by jurisdictions that have more successfully contained the virus, citing the example of Australia, where international travellers are quarantined in a hotel and regularly tested, including for variants.
"It is so critical right now that we act urgently and at least do the low hanging fruit that, if we are going to allow uncontrolled travel nationally and internationally, we have to move to a system of managed quarantine," he said.
"We're kind of in the 11th hour now. We know that the self-isolation protocols that we're using in central and western provinces is too leaky."
Currently, the province says people travelling to B.C. from another province or territory within Canada should only come for essential reasons.
International travellers returning to B.C. are required by law to self-quarantine for 14 days and complete a federal application.
All air passengers five years of age or older are required to test negative for COVID-19 before travelling from another country to Canada and must still complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine.
On Thursday Premier John Horgan said B.C. will not ban visitors from other provinces because a review of legal options showed it would not be possible right now.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau has said the federal government won't rule out invoking the federal Emergencies Act to limit travel as parts of the country continue to experience high infection rates of COVID-19.