Quebec ramps up efforts to identify COVID-19 variants with surveillance plan

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 now been identified in the province.

Quebec announced an $11-million investment to increase its 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 Dubé said in a statement.

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Officials from the Quebec 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 its increased capacity to sequence virus genomes, 65,000 samples from positive test results will have been analyzed by the end of 2021, with a focus on travellers, so-called superspreader events and people who get sick despite being vaccinated.

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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.”

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.

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