Health officials in British Columbia say they have detected the first known Canadian case of the BA.2.86 COVID-19 virus variant.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control confirmed it was found in a person in the Fraser Health region, east of Vancouver, who has not travelled outside of the province.
In a joint statement, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said they are monitoring the variant but added it "was not unexpected" for it to show up in B.C. or in Canada.
"So far, there does not seem to be increased severity with this strain of COVID and the individual is not hospitalized," the statement reads.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, seen here at a news conference in March 2023, says the new variant does not appear to be more severe or spreading rapidly, but it's too early to tell for sure. (Justine Beaulieu-Poudrier/CBC)
Henry told CBC News that whole genome sequencing on viruses found in wastewater has not found the variant.
"So that tells us there's probably not a lot of it," Henry said.
She said the same trend is being seen globally.
"It's not spreading terribly rapidly. We're not seeing more severe illness, but it is something for us to be aware of and to continue to watch."
A week ago, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control reported on its website that wastewater surveillance found viral loads were decreasing in Metro Vancouver treatment plants and were stable or rising slightly in plants in Interior Health and Island Health regions.
Henry said Tuesday that "very low levels of COVID" are being detected in the water, but they are now rising slightly, particularly in the Lower Mainland and the Interior.
"It's still low but increasing," she said, adding that such a rise is not unexpected heading into the fall respiratory season.
'It's the evolution of COVID'
BA.2.86 was deemed a variant under monitoring by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Aug. 17.
Though only a handful of samples exist, its emergence across several continents since it was first identified in late July, coupled with its unusually high number of mutations, has put COVID watchers on high alert.
But it is still difficult to predict whether it will lead to any increase in severity of spread or infection, virologists say.
Dr. Brian Conway, an infectious diseases specialist and medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, told The Canadian Press that the variant has likely been in circulation for weeks, if not months.
"It's the evolution of COVID,'' he said. "It doesn't surprise me.''
Earlier this month, the WHO bumped up an Omicron subvariant called EG.5 from a variant under monitoring to a variant of interest. This is the second-highest ranking after variant of concern.
For now, health officials in B.C. are offering the same advice: stay home when sick, wear masks as needed, wash hands frequently and stay up to date on vaccinations.
Dr. Brian Conway says the new variant has likely been in circulation for a while in B.C. (Christian Amundson/CBC)
A new vaccine, Conway said, will be the most important way to protect against new variants, adding that it's a reminder that "COVID never went away completely.''
COVID-19 is still killing roughly four people a day in Canada, Conway said, pointing to Health Canada data showing 30 COVID-related deaths in the past week.
Conway said as fall approaches and people spend more time indoors and viruses replicate more easily, "we should, be prepared for an increase in COVID illness, COVID hospitalization and COVID mortality.''
"To me, the new variant is just a reminder that COVID is still around,'' he said.
Dr. Karina Zeidler says the new variant is a reminder that COVID is still active and people need to take precautions this fall. (Janella Hamilton/CBC)
Dr. Karina Zeidler, a family physician and a member of Protect Our Province B.C., says the new variant is a reminder that people need to up their protections as schoolchildren head back to classrooms.
"We haven't been vaccinated in quite a while, so that immunity is going to be down," she said. "There's a lot of things right now that make me quite worried."