Manitoba needs to act fast to prevent the spread of a highly infectious and severe coronavirus variant recently confirmed in the province, according to a biologist from B.C. — a province that has already seen a spike in cases involving the P1 strain.
Sarah Otto, an evolutionary biologist at the University of British Columbia, says Manitoba should be isolating the community where the province’s first case of the P1 variant — which is associated with Brazil — was identified.
“You can use vaccines to create a halo around cases of concern by vaccinating intensively in that community,” she said.
Rapid testing should also be deployed in the community to aid contact tracing, Otto said.
The province announced Thursday a person in the Interlake-Eastern health region had contracted the P1 variant. The case is travel-related, a provincial spokesperson said.
Manitoba is now the fifth province in Canada to have confirmed cases of all three major coronavirus variants of concern: B117, first found in the United Kingdom; B1351, first found in South Africa; and now P1, a strain that was first discovered in Japan in four travellers who had returned from Brazil, and so is often associated with Brazil.
B.C. has seen a jump in P1 cases. As of Thursday, there were 1,529 confirmed cases of the variant, by far the most in Canada.
Otto says more data is needed to determine whether the variant has truly taken hold in the province, or whether the spike was simply a local event.
“But Manitoba shouldn’t take chances,” she said.
The variant has mutations that suggest it could re-infect people who have already had the coronavirus, and vaccines may be less effective against it.
The B117 variant is by far the most common variant in Manitoba, with 567 confirmed cases as of Thursday, making up 88 per cent of the confirmed variant cases in the province.
As daily cases numbers have risen in Manitoba in recent weeks, the province has moved to speed up its vaccination efforts.
On Wednesday, Johanu Botha, the operations lead for Manitoba’s vaccine implementation task force, said the province planned to de-emphasise “slower” distribution channels, such as small pop-up clinics in remote and rural communities.
Instead, the focus will be on larger temporary clinics in large urban centres where the virus has been spreading more rapidly, like Winnipeg, he said.
The province also announced Thursday evening it will shift its vaccination approach to focus on eligibility for all adults living in communities with the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission, as well as people with “front-line, public-facing roles” in those communities.
Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer has also hinted more restrictions could return soon, as test positivity rates and cases rise.
In a statement on Thursday, Health Minister Heather Stefanson said health officials are constantly reviewing COVID-19 data and making recommendations on additional measures.
“The timing and content of any changes to Manitoba’s public health orders will be announced in conjunction with and on the advice of our public health officials,” the statement said.
A matter of time
James Blanchard, professor at the Centre for Global Public Health at the University of Manitoba, agrees that the province should ramp up its vaccination efforts, but says that should already have been happening, as variant cases have been increasing for weeks.
“Vaccination should not be a reactive intervention,” he said.
“Trying to sort of follow where the cases are emerging and say, ‘We’re going to start vaccinating there,’ that’s a bit late.… The protective effect of the vaccine isn’t going to be for another couple of weeks and the impact on the wider transmission will take even longer.”
He says it was just a matter of time before Manitoba saw a case of the P1 variant.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise, but it should always have been a concern that we would be seeing these [variants].”
Enhanced public health restrictions enforcing social distancing and mask wearing will be needed to tamp down the spread until more people are vaccinated, he said.
WATCH | First case of P1 coronavirus variant in Manitoba: