A variant of COVID-19 first identified in Brazil is quickly spreading in parts of the Western provinces, where it has swept three work sites in Alberta and forced the closing of the Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia.
A single person who travelled out of Alberta is believed to be responsible for triggering a “significant outbreak” of the P.1 variant at the three work sites, according to the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
Deena Hinshaw said the traveller returning to Alberta is believed to have brought the variant to a “large employer with multiple sites across Western Canada,” where employees then spread it across three sites in the Central and North zones. “We have now identified 26 COVID-19 cases linked to employees at these three sites, and their household contacts,” Dr. Hinshaw said in a series of tweets Monday afternoon. “So far, only three are confirmed P.1 cases, but this will likely increase as more results come in.”
COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.
Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.
- Country of origin: Britain
- Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
- Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.
- Country of origin: South Africa
- Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
- Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.
- Country of origin: Brazil
- Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
- Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.
DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)
- Country of origin: India
- Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
- Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.
- Country of origin: Peru
- Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
- Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.
If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?
Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.
Need more answers? Email email@example.com
Alberta also confirmed a separate, unrelated P.1 outbreak at a workplace in the Calgary zone so far involving five cases, of which one is confirmed to be the P.1 variant, she said.
Dr. Hinshaw did not identify any of the employers, however PTW Energy Services Ltd., headquartered in Calgary, confirmed the three employee P.1 variant cases at its Drayton Valley, Edson and Hinton offices.
The company said in a statement it has hired a third party to carry out a review and is working with Alberta Health Services and Alberta Occupational Health and Safety to monitor, communicate and manage the situation.
“Our thoughts are with our employees and their families at this time as our employees isolate and focus on their health and recovery,” the statement said.
Alberta reported 887 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, of which 432 were variants of concern. Nearly 40 per cent of active cases in the province are now variants. There are 312 people in hospital, of which 76 are in intensive care.
Meanwhile, British Columbia reported 890 new cases on Monday, and 999 the 24 hours prior. Since April 1, the province has confirmed 916 new cases that are variants of concern. Of 373 confirmed active variant cases, 215 are the P.1 variant, Health Minister Adrian Dix said.
From a total of 3,559 variant cases, 737 are the P.1 variant, 2,771 are the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in Britain, and 51 are the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa. B.C.’s first cluster of 13 P.1 cases was detected on March 9.
Emerging research has shown the P.1 variant to be up to 2.5 times more transmissible than the common SARS-CoV-2 strain. A separate study found that out of 100 people to contract COVID-19, 25 to 60 could become infected again with the variant. Younger people are also experiencing more severe disease from the variants than they are from the original virus.
Dr. Hinshaw did not disclose where the person responsible for the P.1 outbreak had travelled. However, Alberta Health on Saturday advised some reporters that it was “out of Canada,” only to issue a correction the following day saying that was inaccurate.
Mr. Dix said he was not aware of a specific workplace outbreak that spread the P.1 variant from B.C. to Alberta.
“I think it’s fair to say that the virus has spread from other jurisdictions to here, and inevitably spread from here to other jurisdictions,” he told reporters. “That includes, for example, places like Whistler, where people have come from outside of B.C. to there. There was spread there, so maybe they’ve spread when they return home.”
On Monday, Canucks rookie Nils Hoglander was added to the team’s COVID-19 protocol list, bringing the total number of active players unavailable to play because of illness or potential exposure to 17. A number of the coaching staff and taxi squad have also reportedly contracted the disease.
Postmedia reports that the P.1 variant is driving the Canucks outbreak, however neither the club nor the NHL has confirmed this.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he remains confident that the team will be able to complete its schedule, telling The Canadian Press in an e-mail that the Canucks’ numbers are “concerning from a health and safety standpoint, not necessarily from a scheduling standpoint.”
Canucks general manager Jim Benning thanked fans for their support.
“Our players, coaches and their families are grateful for the messages and we all hope for a return to full health as soon as possible,” he said in a statement released Sunday.
“Our focus continues to be on the health of everyone involved and we are thankful for the extraordinary health care and guidance we have received from our team’s medical staff, B.C.’s health officials, and from NHL and NHLPA medical experts.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.