Saskatchewan needs to step up its testing for COVID-19 variants, observers warn

·4 min read
Kyle Anderson is a biomedical assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
Kyle Anderson is a biomedical assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

(CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan needs to step up its testing for COVID-19 variants that have spread rapidly in other parts of the country, say some who have been closely tracking the pandemic's curve in the province.

"In order to say with confidence that the variants are not spreading in the population, we need to test broadly for them," said Greg Argue, a strategic planning consultant in Regina.

"We could be really proactive and say we need to have restrictions that will be variant proof. If we aren't going to go that route, then [we should be] looking for the variants," echoed Kyle Anderson, a biomedical assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Only three people in Saskatchewan have tested positive for the B117 variant first found in the U.K. All the cases were linked to recent travel. No other variant cases have been announced since Feb. 5.

That same week, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said that up to three per cent of the province's positive COVID-19 samples were being further tested for signs of the more infectious strains of COVID-19 originally found in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.

On Tuesday, Shahab said the province was aiming to test six per cent of all positive samples for variants.

A two-week lag

Samples tested for variants are sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg instead of being handled in-house in Saskatchewan. This is part of the problem, Anderson said.

"The downside of this is it seems to take about two, maybe two and a half weeks from when the first positive case is detected until we know that it was a variant," Anderson said. "That's a lot of time for that virus to spread and us not to be responding to it."

Testing the samples in either Saskatoon or Regina would cut down on lag and give provincial health officials time to devise proactive measures to curb the spread of any variants, such as small geographic lockdowns, Anderson said.

"There's really no reason that we can't do it here. It's just having that political willpower," he said.

In-house testing in the works: premier

On Tuesday, Premier Scott Moe said Saskatchewan was taking steps toward in-house variant testing.

"The provincial lab currently is working through the licensing process, which would allow us then to go from six per cent to 10 per cent of our testing rate," Moe said.

According to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), two people currently conducting COVID PCR testing would be tapped to instead carry out the genomic sequencing needed to identify variant cases.

Shahab said some countries in Europe are testing up to 25 per cent of samples. Provincial health officials have previously cited cost and manpower as impediments to testing every single sample.

"Obviously, no jurisdiction can sample 100 per cent," Shahab said.

People should be minimizing their overall travelling, he added.

"All 10 provinces now are reporting variants of concern. When they come, they spread very quickly," he said. "I think we need to be extremely vigilant."

'Variants could be coming up from any case'

Positive samples from young people under intensive hospital care, recent travellers or people who are fully vaccinated are among those being sent for variant testing, Shahab added.

About 120 samples are sent every week, according to the SHA.

Anderson said using those categories struck him as a very intelligent approach, but also cautioned that a wider array of samples need to be tested.

"Variants could be coming up from any case," he said. "If we don't find that first generation travel case and it is then spread to someone else, those are the people that we should be looking for as well. It could be the case of one person passing it to another for a few generations before we have sort of an explosion like what's happening in Newfoundland right now."

Moe also announced on Tuesday that Saskatchewan's Dec. 17 public health order — which reduced gatherings to household members only — would remain in place until March 19

"I suspect that the continuation of existing restrictions is a nod to the assumption that the variant strain is present and growing, even if not verified," Argue said.