B.C. is far and away leading the country in Brazil variant cases

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The P.1 COVID-19 variant, known as the Brazil variant, is on the rise in B.C., hitting towns like Whistler hard and even sidelining members of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team.

Health officials on Thursday released the latest tally of COVID-19 cases in the province and put the number of Brazil variant cases at 379, the largest count for any jurisdiction outside of the country where it originated.

Here’s what you need to know about the worrisome new variant:


The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.
The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. Photo by Government of B.C. /PNG

Where is it circulating?

B.C. is far and away leading the country in Brazil variant cases. It is followed by Ontario with 96 cases and Alberta with six, though the latter province’s chief medical officer said on Saturday that health officials there were investigating a “significant” spread of the Brazil variant linked to a traveller.

Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, has said there have been clusters in the Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health and Interior Health regions.

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Sarah Otto, a professor at the University of B.C.’s Department of Zoology, called on the province Sunday to release information about numbers as well as specific locations, so people in those communities can practice heightened caution.

“Let’s keep P.1 from spreading,” Otto said in an interview.


(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 26, 2021 patients affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus remain at a field hospital set up at a sports gym, in Santo Andre, Sao Paulo state, Brazil.
(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 26, 2021 patients affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus remain at a field hospital set up at a sports gym, in Santo Andre, Sao Paulo state, Brazil. Photo by MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL /AFP via Getty Images

So what do researchers say about the variant’s spread?

The variant is believed to be highly transmissible. It emerged in Brazil in December, where it raced through the country’s seventh most populous city, Manaus. It was first reported in Japan, having been found there in travellers from Brazil, and it was confirmed to have reached the eastern U.S. in January and Eastern Canada in February, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Infection.

Researchers looking at the spread of the variant in Brazil found the relative transmissibility is about 2.5 times higher than the base infection rate, but other studies have put that figure lower.

Cases of the Brazil variant in B.C. are far outnumbered by cases of the U.K. variant, but the former appears to be shooting upward just as the latter did after it first appeared. Despite the similar trajectories, Otto cautioned against comparing the spread of the two at this stage.

“It’s hard, because we also know that there were a bunch of parties and superspreader events with the P.1 (variant). We need more data about regular transmission chains to estimate its growth rate in B.C.,” she said.


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Why is this variant particularly concerning?

As Otto put it, it’s “a triple-whammy of a virus.”

Besides being more transmissible, it may also be able to reinfect those who have already caught COVID-19, as the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and others have warned, and it causes a 10-80 per cent increase in mortality, Otto said.


Louis Moro, 93, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Vena Anderson at a pharmacy prototype clinic in Halifax on March 9, 2021.
Louis Moro, 93, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Vena Anderson at a pharmacy prototype clinic in Halifax on March 9, 2021. Photo by Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Can vaccines stop it?

Some treatments and vaccines may not work as well on the Brazil variant as they do on other strains, according to the B.C. CDC.

But recent research has suggested the Pfizer vaccine may be effective in neutralizing the Brazil variant, and other research predicts the Moderna vaccine will do the same, according to the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases.

Otto said mRNA vaccines like those made by Pfizer and Moderna elicit strong immune reactions. It is possible that even though the Brazil variant can reinfect those who have had COVID-19 itself, it won’t infect those who have had the vaccine. But we just don’t have enough information yet to say, she said.


People wearing masks walk along West Broadway in Vancouver on February 25, 2021.
People wearing masks walk along West Broadway in Vancouver on February 25, 2021. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

How can you avoid catching it?

The B.C. CDC advises people to continue to practice physical distancing and hand washing and avoid crowded, poorly ventilated areas. Wear a mask and if you’re sick, stay home to reduce the spread.

But Otto had some additional advice given the amount we don’t know about the Brazil variant.

“Have the same heightened caution as we did at the beginning of last year when we didn’t know what was going on.”

mrobinson@postmedia.com

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