Manitoba is now sending COVID-19 samples for genetic sequencing to detect variants within 24 hours, but officials still have no explanation for previous delays in transporting such specimens down the street.
"I don’t think there are any delays in the process right now," deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said Friday, in response to questions from the Free Press.
His remarks come as Manitoba broadens the criteria of people expected to stay home after a contact with someone carrying COVID-19, in recognition of more contagious coronavirus variants.
The province screens all positive COVID-19 samples for the three most concerning variants, and sends them onwards to the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab for sequencing, which is a much more complex process.
But getting the samples from the Cadham Provincial Laboratory to NML has taken more than a week — despite being located just 600 metres apart.
The first variant case stemmed from a sample the Cadham lab had tested Jan. 22, but chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin told reporters Feb. 9 NML had only provided the sequencing result the previous evening.
This clearly annoyed the Public Health Agency of Canada, who clarified it only took NML four days to complete the sequencing, and the sample had only shown up at the national lab 13 days after Cadham did its initial COVID-19 test.
Provincial officials have never explained that delay, saying this month it was "looking at the case to identify any logical issues."
Since then, the province has announced two other variant cases linked to flights that had arrived in Canada three weeks prior — raising further questions about how long it takes Manitoba to get such samples sequenced.
Meanwhile, the province is now requiring everyone sharing a home with a COVID-19 carrier to isolate, because of the time it takes to sequence. That means pulling Manitobans out of school and work until labs can confirm the household hasn’t been exposed to a highly contagious variant.
"If someone tests positive for COVID-19, all household members will be considered close contacts and will have to self-isolate," a provincial spokeswoman wrote this week. "This is because it takes time to screen for and sequence a sample to confirm if it is a variant of concern."
This week, a PHAC spokeswoman said the national lab should take less than a week to sequence samples, once they’re received.
"NML’s work begins when the sample is received at the lab, with a goal to return results four to seven days later," the agency wrote.
Atwal said Friday that Cadham should be getting samples to NML quickly.
"Once something is screened positive from CPL, it gets sent over to the NML lab for sequencing; I think that happens within a 24-hour period," said Atwal, who did not have any explanation for why this has previously taken so long.
"Earlier on, there might have been a delay."
— with files from Danielle Da Silva