Variant first detected in India now under high surveillance in Quebec

Eleven cases of the coronavirus B.1.617 variant have been confirmed in Quebec to date.

Administering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday May 13, 2021, at the Palais des Congrès.

Quebec has positive confirmation of 11 cases of the new strain of the coronavirus first detected in India that is believed to be more transmissible, and the province will add it to its list of variants “under high surveillance” in the coming days.

The cases of the variant identified as B.1.617 were all brought in by travellers, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) has confirmed. They were identified through tests taken upon arrival at airports, which were sent to Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg for genomic sequencing tests.

There are no known cases of community transmission in Quebec to date, the INSPQ said. The institute said it did not have details on where in the province the variant had been detected.

The new variant is expected to be added to Quebec’s list of strains of the COVID-19 disease that are “under high surveillance” in the province this week, following suit with the federal health agency. It was first detected in Quebec on April 20, in a patient who had been vaccinated two months prior.

“B.1.617 was recently designated as a (variant of concern) by the World Health Organization given its increased transmissibility,” Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Monday. “As of May 16, the B.1.617 variant, including all three currently defined sub-lineages (B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3) have been identified in nine provinces and one territory.”

Surges of cases of the new variant in the United Kingdom have brought warnings that the loosening of restrictions that started there Monday may be reversed if rapid spread continues. The administration said it believes the variant from India may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the UK and was much more contagious than the original strain of COVID-19, leading to a devastating second wave in England. Studies on the transmissibility of the variant are still under way.

Cases of the new variant doubled in the UK in the space of seven days, increasing from 520 cases to 1,313 cases last week, according to the most recent data.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has identified approximately 500 cases of B.1.617 in Canada, the majority of them in British Columbia, which has more than 300 cases. Roughly 150 cases have been identified in Ontario.

“The sub-lineage B.1.617.2, designated in the UK as a variant of concern, appears to have preliminary evidence of increased transmissibility, and confirming this evidence is part of Canada’s review,” media adviser Anna Madison wrote in an email.

Other variants of concern identified by PHAC are the B.1.1.7 variant (first identified in the United Kingdom) the B.1.351 variant (first identified in South Africa) and the P.1 variant (first identified in Brazil).

The B.1.1.7 variant accounts for 90 per cent of all variants identified in Quebec. Others variants under high surveillance identified through genomic sequencing tests on the INSPQ’s list are the B.1.351 variant, with 312 identified cases, the P.1 variant, with 251 cases, and the B.1.525 variant first sequenced in Nigeria, with 94 cases.

The variant emerging from India will be added to that list this week, Michel Roger, head of Quebec’s public health laboratory, said in an interview with Le Devoir.

As of Monday, groups of six people or two households are allowed to meet indoors in homes or pubs and restaurants in England, but several health experts still advised against indoor gatherings because of uncertainties surrounding the new variant.

Health secretary Matt Hancock warned the variant could “spread like wildfire” among unvaccinated groups, The Guardian reported. In the UK, 55 per cent of the population have received their first dose, and 30 per cent their second dose.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said vaccination protocols could be changed quickly to deliver second doses to those over 50 if necessary to fight against the spread of the variant first detected in India. Surge testing is being done in areas where outbreaks have been detected.

Johnson said his administration believes the variant is more transmissible than previous ones, although there is no firm data confirming this to date. He noted as well that there is no evidence showing the variant is more likely to cause death or severe illness, nor that the vaccines are less effective against it in protecting against serious illness or death, The New York Times reported.

The new strain has been found in more than 40 countries to date.

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