PRIVATE labs have been enlisted in Manitoba’s effort to stay on top of highly contagious strains of the coronavirus, but details are being kept under wraps.
The provincial government has signed a contract with Ontario-based Dynacare lab services company to conduct genomic sequencing of COVID-19 variants of concern. However, the province hasn’t publicly disclosed the contract or any information about the agreement.
Dynacare, which owns and operates dozens of locations in Manitoba, was already contracted to do COVID-19 testing and currently handles about half of Manitoba’s COVID-19 tests. The outsourcing of the sequencing work means identifying, confirming and keeping track of concerning or emerging strains of the virus is now privatized, too.
Cadham Provincial Laboratory also screens and does sequencing for variant-of-concern cases. The province said Cadham Lab does all of the sequencing for positive COVID-19 cases that come from outbreaks, personal-care homes or severely ill patients. Manitoba is not tracking the proportion of sequencing work being done at lab sites.
A provincial spokesperson confirmed the Dynacare contract has been signed, but said in a statement no details are being released.
When asked for an explanation, the province referred a reporter to a section of the province’s access-to-information legislation that protects third-party business interests.
A Dynacare representative sent the Free Press a statement Tuesday that didn’t address specific questions about the contract, nor its sequencing work in other provinces.
Previously, all COVID-19 DNA sequencing work for Manitoba was done by the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab. However, as the pandemic progresses, the federal lab has been transferring that work back to provinces, just as it initially did for COVID-19 testing.
The Winnipeg lab is focused on specific national COVID-19 surveillance priorities, including conducting outbreak investigations with provinces, looking into samples from Canadians who’ve been infected with COVID-19 after being vaccinated, and continuing to focus on samples from international travellers, said acting scientific director general Dr. Guillaume Poliquin in a recent interview.
"We have a fixed capacity for sequencing, and we want to be able to use it to the best of our abilities to get answers about what we’re worried about. And so the way we do that nationally is by having a common set of priorities and working to make sure that we are sequencing the samples that fit those priorities, to gain a better understanding."
With more labs across the country conducting sequencing of COVID-19 cases, the need to share data to inform provincial and national pandemic responses is an urgent concern in the third wave.
"The biggest challenge we have is to be able to integrate the data at a pan-Canadian level," said Dr. Catalina Lopez-Correa, executive director of the Canadian COVID Genomics Network at Genome Canada.
"That goes to the need for us to be able to share data between provinces at a national level."
Manitoba doesn’t use PCR screening tests to detect newly emerging highly contagious variants, so their presence must be confirmed via sequencing, which typically takes about a week to get results.
Four cases of the B.1.617 variant (first identified in India) were confirmed and announced in Manitoba late last week.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.