Epidemiologists have gotten to work predicting the future if highly contagious COVID-19 variants spread through Quebec, and their findings are alarming – especially combined with news that variant cases do continue to climb.
As of Tuesday there are 86 people probably infected with COVID-19 variants in the province, with their viral samples being sequenced to identify the variants, said Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé.
Nonetheless, the province is easing some restrictions and says it has variant surveillance under control.
Quebec has come up with its own new modeling, focused just on Montreal, that takes into account how variants could change the city’s situation. It’s set to unveil that math Wednesday morning in a technical briefing.
Two Vancouver academics’ model, released Tuesday, warns that allowing the variants to spread is playing with fire.
“The punch line is that failure to prevent or contain this now spells disaster in March,” said two experts from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
Their model found there could be well over 4,000 new cases per day in Quebec by mid-April, roughly six times this week’s daily numbers.
“While we don’t see much impact for [about] 6 weeks, when it comes it comes steeply,” wrote researchers Elisha Are and Caroline Colijn.
The B.C. experts’ numbers took the conservative approach, in a sense. The new variants are better at spreading than the original version of the virus – the U.K. variant, for example, is 40 to 80 per cent more contagious than the original virus.
Their modelling assumed it was on the low end of that scale, just 40 per cent more infectious.
That kind of number would create a doubling time of one to two weeks for the daily case counts, compared to current doubling times in Canada’s major provinces, such as Ontario, that are more than twice as long, at around 30 to 40 days.
The Quebec-specific model published by SFU researchers Elisha Are and Caroline Colijn on Feb. 16, forecasting variant spread.
To create the model, they looked at the known spread of non-variant COVID-19 and then swapped in the more transmissible version.
“In this modelling, the control measures currently in place continue indefinitely. This is not realistic, but serves to illustrate the impact of a higher-transmission variant even if we keep doing the stringent things we are doing today,” they wrote.
Overall, they tried to predict what would happen if the variants took hold and “got established” in Canada, other things being equal.
The variant being more infectious than the original virus is actually worse than being more lethal, Are and Colijn wrote.
“An increase like that in the transmission rate is worse than a higher severity or mortality rate, because so many more people can get infected,” they explained.
The made-in-Quebec modelling has been done by the INSPQ public health institute. The Wednesday briefing will be led by Marc Brisson, a Université Laval prof and the head of an epidemiological modelling research group, and Jocelyne Sauvé, an INSPQ expert.
“The briefing will be an opportunity to present the most recent modeling of the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic in Greater Montreal, taking into account scenarios of adherence to health measures and considering the potential impact of a more transmissible variant,” such as the U.K. variant, the province wrote in a press release.
That briefing will come just a day after Tuesday’s announcement that COVID-19 measures will be further relaxed, including reopening movie theatres across the province and allowing some indoor sports later this month.
While making that announcement, Quebec authorities acknowledged there’s a growing number of variant cases, especially in Montreal.
But they said the province’s capacity to sequence viral DNA to identify the new variants is good, and that the province is acting carefully with suspected cases.
“We act on these cases as if they were new variants,” said Dubé. There’s a “specific isolation on these people.”
He said he thinks Quebec will succeed in being “close to” reaching its goal of sequencing 100 per cent of positive COVID-19 cases in Montreal to check for variants.
When asked if he thought any kind of reopening is poorly timed, considering the variants, he said vaccination is a “significant element” that should be remembered.
“I think yes, it’s a risk, but we must undrestand that vaccination is coming soon… we have to take that into consideration,” he said.
Quebec Director of Public Health Dr. Horacio Arruda said the technical briefing on Wednesday will go into more detail about all these questions.
The briefing “will answer many of your questions, because in the model that’s been developed we do simulations with optimistic and pessimistic rates,” he said.