B.C.’s Star Doctor Fights Claim New Virus Strain is Running Amok

When British Columbia shut down the ski resort of Whistler in late March to contain a Covid-19 outbreak, a flood of alarming headlines circulated, warning that the highly contagious Brazil variant was running amok in Canada.

This week, the province’s top doctor pushed back: the number of P.1 cases -- the more contagious variant that emerged in the Amazonian city of Manaus -- is high because British Columbia is testing more for the strain than most parts of the world.

“It’s really important to know that we do a lot of whole genome sequencing,” the only technique that definitively identifies a variant, Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, told reporters Thursday. “So we have a better understanding -- and we have increased numbers -- relative to many other provinces. And, in Canada, relative to many other countries.”

B.C.’s Star Doctor Fights Claim New Virus Strain is Running Amok

Henry doesn’t dispute the heightened risk posed by the variant, which preliminary studies have suggested is at least twice as transmissible. On March 29, the province closed indoor dining, worship services and most fitness activities for three weeks, saying a “circuit breaker” was needed to contain the spread.

But she has pushed back against other claims. In recent weeks, media reports have characterized Whistler as the single biggest P.1 outbreak outside of Brazil -- a relatively meaningless assertion because insufficient surveillance in most countries, including the U.S., has obscured recognition of variants in many places.

Covid and Canucks

Some reports have also suggested the Brazil variant is sending more young Canadians to hospital. When the National Hockey League said 21 Vancouver Canucks players had tested positive for Covid-19, news stories linked the cases to the P.1 strain before genome sequencing was even completed.

There are no data to support that P.1 is hospitalizing young people at a higher rate, Henry said. While a disproportionate number of 20-to-39 year olds initially appeared to be affected, that was “a reflection of where the outbreaks were happening.” Whistler is known for attracting young adults, as well as for its tight housing conditions, where seasonal workers share rooms or even beds -- increasing the risk of transmission.

As of April 8, most of Canada’s P.1 cases -- 883 of 1,039 -- were in British Columbia. Provincial health officials say they believe they have stopped the chains of transmissions but continue to monitor the situation closely.

Some 197 P.1 cases were linked to Whistler and circulation appears to have peaked the week of March 22. Henry has said it wasn’t one single cluster, but likely several cases brought by visitors from other parts of Canada, which later spread to the Vancouver area.

B.C. has completed whole genome sequencing on more than 19,000 specimens -- “way more than most countries” -- resulting in a higher total case count. However, the same tests show the variant’s prevalence is increasing at a similar rate to other jurisdictions, Henry said.

Standing Her Ground

Early on in the pandemic, Henry emerged a hero, drawing on her vast experience combating Ebola, SARS and other viruses to lead the province to one of the lowest death rates in North America. Her soft-spoken authority won over British Columbians, who sport tote bags and face masks bearing her mantra: “Be kind, be calm, be safe.” When a local shoe designer offered a limited edition Dr. Bonnie Henry Mary Jane heel, demand crashed the website.

However, in recent weeks, transmission has surged with the arrival of new variants across Canada, and British Columbia has seen its daily infections hit records. In turn, public criticism has spiked, though Henry remains one of the nation’s most popular public officials, according to recent polls.

Henry has repeatedly said data guide the province’s policies -- even if that means going its own way. In early March, the province came under fire when it announced it would delay second vaccine shots by four months in order to free up doses to inoculate all residents more quickly, citing data from the U.K. and New Zealand that showed at least 90% protection from the first dose.

Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science adviser, blasted it as a “population level experiment” and warned Canada not to “tinker” with data provided by Moderna and Pfizer. Two days later, Canada’s national panel of vaccine experts recommended all provinces follow British Columbia and extend the time between doses to four months.

This week Henry again quietly stood her ground against the public furor over the P.1 variant. Rather than squander precious resources to measure the spread of a strain already accepted as highly contagious, the province will “monitor for the things that make a difference,” searching for new strains, signs of re-infections due to vaccine failures, and “escape variants” that may not respond as well to immunizations, she said.

British Columbia will no longer routinely sequence to confirm variants like the P.1 or the U.K. strain, Henry said Thursday. “We assume that anybody who is positive with Covid-19 needs to be treated as if they have one of these highly transmissible viruses.”

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