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People arrive at a COVID-19 testing clinic, in Montreal, on Jan. 24, 2021.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec is ramping up its ability to identify COVID-19 variants as health officials reported Friday that eight cases of the more transmissible U.K. variant have been identified in the province.

Officials announced an $11-million investment to increase Quebec’s capacity to identify new variants.

“The situation in some countries is worrying, and we want to make sure that we can quickly detect the emergence of variants that may have an impact on the transmissibility, but also the effectiveness of vaccines against COVID-19,” Health Minister Christian Dube said in a statement.

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Officials from the Quebec’s public health institute announced Friday that two new cases of the U.K. variant had been identified and said the plan is to move quickly to identify genetic mutations in the virus and measure vaccine response to the new variants.

“What we see is what we have in other countries – what we see in the U.K. and in other countries – where there are variants, where they increase transmissibility,” Dr. Michel Roger, the institute’s chief microbiologist, told a technical briefing.

“It can go fast, but now we know it can happen. That’s why we’re putting this plan together to act fast and hoping that we stop it when it comes to Quebec.”

Roger said that with an increased capacity to sequence virus genomes, the province will be able to analyze 65,000 samples from positive test results by the end of 2021, with a focus on travellers, so-called superspreader events and on people who get sick despite being vaccinated.

The plan comes amid the spread of novel coronavirus variants around the world, with three potentially more transmissible and more virulent variants of the virus having been detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

In Quebec, Roger said four of the confirmed cases of the U.K. variant were linked to a student returning from Britain who infected her mother, father and sister.

“She didn’t follow the guidelines, she should have isolated before going home,” Roger said. “It shows why it’s important to follow the public health guidelines we would not have had the mini outbreak in this family.”

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Surveillance of variants has been in place in the province since April, with 7,000 positive samples having been sequenced – about three per cent of all cases. The new Quebec program has an objective of sequencing 10 per cent of positive samples.

Roger said they are keeping tabs on Ontario, where experts have said the U.K. variant could become the dominant strain of the virus by March. There are 51 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in Ontario.

The new variants are a major concern for Quebec authorities, who welcomed on Friday new travel restrictions imposed by the federal government. Travellers returning to Canada will soon be required to take a COVID-19 test and isolate for three days at a hotel at their own expense.

With March break around the corner, Deputy Premier Genevieve Guilbault says the new health orders come at the right time.

“There will be less people who can contract the virus and the variant of the virus abroad and bring it here,” Guilbault told reporters in Quebec City. “And this is what worries us the most.”

Guilbault also said that as of Monday, Quebec police will be able to hand out tickets to citizens who aren’t respecting quarantine, after the province reached a deal with Ottawa to apply the federal health order.

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Meanwhile, Quebec on Friday reported 1,295 new COVID-19 cases and 50 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including nine in the previous 24 hours. Hospitalizations dropped to 1,217, a decrease of 47, and the number of patients requiring intensive care dropped by three, to 209.

Quebec has reported a total of 259,993 infections, 9,717 deaths linked to the virus and 235,516 recoveries from COVID-19.

The province has nearly exhausted all of its COVID-19 vaccine doses. Officials said they had administered 3,071 injections Thursday and had about 2,043 vaccine doses left from the 238,100 total doses they had received.

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