New testing technology identified a large, previously unknown cluster of the highly contagious P1 variant strain in the Vancouver area.

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A team of researchers at St. Paul’s Hospital using a new method for rapidly identifying COVID-19 variants of concern has unexpectedly detected a cluster of over 215 cases of the P1 variant — more than doubling the number of P1 cases in the province.

“Using this technology, we rapidly identified a cluster of P1 cases which otherwise would have likely gone undetected,” said Dr. Marc Romney, clinical associate professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at UBC and head of medical microbiology and virology at St. Paul’s.

“Since then, we have identified more P1 cases in B.C. than have been identified in the entire United States and more than any other country, except Brazil and Italy.”

The P1 variant was first identified in Brazil.

Romney said the lab at St. Paul’s does testing for about 70 per cent of the Vancouver area, including some of the suburbs. As of Friday, about 30 per cent of positive COVID-19 results his lab tested were variants of concern. Of those, he said, “the majority were P1.”

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The P1 variant is especially concerning because it contains a mutation that makes it both highly contagious and more resistant to the antibodies produced from vaccines and previous coronavirus infections. It has teh potential to infect people who have been vaccinated and even reinfect people who have had COVID-19.

At a press conference last week, the provincial health officer acknowledged the growth of the P1 variant, saying it was “something we’re watching really carefully.”

“It is concerning because this is a variant that we’ve seen be very destructive in Brazil and there is concern about the effectiveness of vaccines,” Dr. Bonnie Henry said.

The St. Paul’s technology used to identify the variants —  polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing — allows researchers to identify coronavirus variants within 24 hours, dramatically quicker than the more-common labour intensive process of genome sequencing, which can take anywhere from several days to several weeks. PCR is a fast and inexpensive technique used to copy and amplify small segments of DNA and has been in use for decades, with many applications outside coronavirus testing.

“One thing that we’ve learned from the pandemic is that you can’t be slow,” Romney said. “We need to keep up with the virus otherwise we are going to be making decisions that are based on data that are a week old.”

He said that labs in B.C. and in other provinces are also “moving toward a PCR-based approach to testing for variants of concern.”

They’ve realized, he said, “that speed trumps perfection.”

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