What we know — and don't know — about variants in B.C. right now

·3 min read
Adam Gaudette was the first Canucks player to test positive for COVID-19 on March 30. Since then, 21 others and four staff members have followed, and the team has confirmed a variant is involved.  (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Adam Gaudette was the first Canucks player to test positive for COVID-19 on March 30. Since then, 21 others and four staff members have followed, and the team has confirmed a variant is involved. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

On Tuesday, the provincial government held its first press conference about COVID-19 in five days — and of the 12 questions asked by reporters, nine involved trying to find out more information about the impact of variants of the virus.

Part of that is due to rising case counts across B.C., fuelled by various variants of concern. And part of that is due to a lot of information about the effects of the variants still being unknown.

Here's what we can say.

At what rate are the variants spreading in B.C.?

On December 27, the first case of a variant of concern was announced in B.C., and by March 1, the province announced there had been a total of 158 cases.

Since then, that number has quickly risen — to 880 cases on March 15, 2,643 cases on April 1, and 3,766 cases just five days later.

As of April 6, this included 2,838 cases of the B117 variant, 877 cases of the P1 variant, and 51 cases of the B1351 variant.

The province says 90 per cent of all positive tests are now screened for variants, a number much larger than many other jurisdictions — the United States was testing less than 10 per cent of cases for variants of concern last month.

But because B.C. first tests to see whether a case is a variant of COVID-19, and then does a further test to determine which variant it is, there's a significant delay between when variant is announced and the day somebody actually tested positive.

"Data lags lead to lags in action," argues Jens von Bergmann.

"So if we're saying, 'Well, these variants aren't really growing exponentially' … it's actually a past tense of like a week or two ago and gives a skewed view of everything that's going on."

Why are the variants rising faster?

While all of the variants act slightly differently, one common denominator is there's a greater chance they will infect people, and people who have the virus will then spread to it more people than the most common form of the coronavirus would, if given the opportunity.

"If you really are observing the health-care regulations pretty much to the letter, we have no evidence the variant can be transmitted there any more than the old version of COVID could," said Dr. Brian Conway, chief medical officer of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre.

"We are aware that a significant number of British Columbians … are occasionally engaging in behaviours that aren't exactly consistent with the rules in place, but that had not, until now, led to any transmission."

Conway also believes the government should release numbers on variants before the exact type is known, and consider vaccinating younger people quicker than originally planned.

How is it affecting young people?

There have been a number of reports from B.C. doctors of a surge in hospitalizations of young people due to COVID-19, with the implication that variants are to blame — but so far, official data from the government hasn't borne that out.

In the last week of available data, from March 20 to 27, 16 per cent of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 were in people under 40, which is consistent with 16 per cent for the entire course of the pandemic. In the last six days, 44 per cent of overall new cases were in people between 20 and 39, compared to 41 per cent for the entire pandemic.

The provincial government has not provided more current information on hospitalizations despite requests to do so, and there is no data from the government on hospitalizations due to variants.

However, evidence from Brazil suggests that the P1 variant can cause an increase in cases and hospitalization at a much higher rate among young people than the original virus.

"Admission in hospitals is four to five times than what we saw in the first wave, and they're taking longer to recover," said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian scientist and professor at Duke University who has been tracking the variant.

"It's a pretty dangerous variant."