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Top doctor ‘dreading’ possibility that COVID variants will take off in B.C.

If more transmissible variants become widespread, restrictions will need to cut down contacts
FILE - In this file photo dated Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, a vial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 at a hospital in Sofia, Bulgarian. South Africa on Sunday Feb. 7, 2021, has suspended plans to inoculate its front-line health care workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine after a small clinical trial suggested that it isn’t effective in preventing mild to moderate illness from the variant dominant in the country. (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova, FILE)

Although B.C. has only had 40 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variants first discovered in the U.K. and South Africa, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says she is “dreading” if those variants begin to spread like wildfire.

“It does change the game in some ways if starts to take off and become dominant in the community,” Henry said. “I think all of us are dreading that.”

She said that the variants’ appearances in B.C. has taken the public health sector back to January and February of last year, where every single cases was being tracked and managed closely to attempt to stop the virus from gaining a foothold in the province. Henry noted that in some parts of Ontario the variants are “spreading quite widely and it’s having impacts that we saw are quite devastating..” That province announced plans to begin loosening stay-at-home orders on Wednesday.

“We’re doing all we can to stop it from taking off again,” she said. “We need to get a handle on it… this is one of the main reasons we’re extending the restrictions here in B.C.”

Henry said that if those variants become prevalent in B.C., “we need to put in place measures that would restrict our contacts again.” She said that genome sequencing is ongoing to catch as many variant cases as possible, but that it is slower than simple testing.

“It can lead us to a brand new charge of increased numbers of cases if we don’t keep doing what we’re doing,” Henry said.

There have been a total of 40 cases of the U.K. (B117) and South African (B1351) variants of the novel coronavirus, both of which are considered to be more transmissible. Of those, 25 are have been the U.K. variant, broken down by region: 15 in Fraser Health, five in Vancouver Coastal Health, four in Island Health and one in Interior Health. Of the 15 cases of the South African variant, there have been 13 in Vancouver Coastal Health and two in Fraser Health.

Henry said four cases of the South African cases are “particularly concerning,” because it’s unclear how those individuals got infected with that variant. Only three cases of the 40 total confirmed variant cases are still active.

Overall, the provincial health officer said that most of the variant cases are among younger people who are more likely to travel.

“We aren’t seeing seeing severe illness in the number that we’ve identified so far, nobody has been hospitalized,” she added. “There has been some transmission between close contacts, particularly within households.”

In terms of whether or not the current crop of mRNA vaccines will work on the new variants, Henry said officials are watching studies closely. The AstraZeneca viral vector vaccine, which does not use mRNA technology, has been suspended in South Africa after officials there began to believe it’s not effected for that variant.

Henry said it looks like the mRNA vaccines might have to be adjusted for the South African variant, but likely not for the U.K. one.

READ MORE: Henry says COVID vaccine supply to increase in February; total cases top 70,000

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