Saskatchewan screening all positive samples for Delta variant

Saskatchewan officials say most in-province cases of the variant are linked to travel, but they're watching for community spread.

Zak Vescera, Saskatoon StarPhoenix 3 minute read June 10, 2021

A new COVID-19 variant gaining ground in Saskatchewan is renewing the urgency of getting vaccines into arms, according to one epidemiologist.

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine said the Delta variant, first detected in India, will be “an important one to watch” as the province begins pivoting to giving residents the second of their two COVID-19 vaccine doses.

“We don’t have a full knowledge of the spread of the Delta variant in Canada, and that is my concern,” said the University of Saskatchewan professor.

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The province’s two biggest testing labs are now screening every positive sample of COVID-19 for the Delta variant. Since mid-May, genetic sequencing has identified 45 cases in Saskatchewan, most in Regina and Saskatoon.

“It is important to note that as of right now, the majority of cases related to the Delta variant are imported from travel,” medical health officer Dr. Johnmark Opondo said in a statement.

Opondo said officials continue to look for community spread of that variant; its relative resistance to some COVID-19 vaccines has sparked concern.

“It’s primarily the experience in the UK that is ringing the alarm bells,” Dr. Andrew Cameron said.

Cameron, an associate professor of biology at the University of Regina, has been working with researchers across the country to parse through SARS-CoV-2’s genetic makeup and understand variants of the virus that spread faster and hit harder.

The latest on the radar is B.1617.2. Data from Public Health England suggest people with just one dose of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines — like most adults in Saskatchewan — are significantly less protected from that variant than they are from the B.1.1.7 or “Alpha” variant first found in the UK.

But one shot is still better than no shot, and people with two shots are still very well protected, Cameron said, which means the race between the variant and the vaccine is back on.

“This was inevitable. We were predicting this a year ago, because we know this is exactly what would happen if it keeps spreading. It would keep evolving to use us as a better host,” Cameron said.

“The vaccines are so powerful and so well-designed that they do provide protection.”

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Lab staff can screen for variants by testing for the presence of specific mutations. If they pick one up, they send the sample for a full genetic “sequencing” that identifies which variant it is. That’s an unavoidably complicated process, Cameron said.

Lenore Howey, the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s executive director of laboratory medicine, wrote in a statement that all samples that screen positive for the Delta variant are sequenced, but noted the process can take three weeks, factoring in travel.

Muhajarine said it’s another reason for the province to stay careful, even if restrictions are gradually ended in the next five weeks, as the province plans to do.

Cameron said it raises the stakes of getting people both shots as soon as possible.

“Probably the concern in our province is a proportion of the population that is unvaccinated,” he said.

zvescera@postmedia.com

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