Manitoba's weeks-long lag in detecting highly contagious COVID-19 variants stemmed from a delay in asking the private lab conducting nearly half the tests to send along samples, the Free Press has learned.
It wasn’t until Feb. 7 that the Manitoba government asked Dynacare to send COVID-19 samples on a daily basis to the Cadham Provincial Laboratory so they could be screened for variants of concern.
That explains why it took 18 days to detect the first documented B.1.1.7 variant case in Manitoba, as well as the three-week lag in reporting at least two other variant cases linked to specific flights.
None of the five confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in Manitoba have led to secondary infections.
Yet the province waited until six weeks after Canada restricted flights from Britain, on Dec. 24, to ramp up its surveillance of variants.
"In January of this year, a request was made to send samples on a regular basis which we complied with. It was not sent daily but was sent batched," Dynacare spokesman Mark Bernhardt wrote.
"Then on February 7th, a request was made to send all positive COVID-19 samples to Cadham on a daily basis, which we have complied with."
Bernhardt said Dynacare takes 12 to 24 hours to test samples and then ships them to Cadham.
The province says it takes up to a day for Cadham to screen for possible variants, and suspected cases are then sent to National Microbiology Laboratory for in-depth sequencing, which should take four to seven days, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
That turnaround period should be in place as of Feb. 7.
But before then, households with variant cases were likely not told about the need to have housemates isolate for as long as 24 days, a measure the province put in place to contain the spread of new strains.
For example, the province announced three variant cases on Feb. 19, two of which appeared on the province's registry of flights with COVID-19 exposure that dated back to Jan. 26 and 30. This suggests the COVID-19 carriers would have learned they were variant cases — and that their housemates needed to keep isolating — only after completing their quarantines.
Provincial officials have never offered any explanation for why the sequencing process had been taking as long as three weeks. Instead, officials highlighted the province’s role in a national genomic surveillance project, and defended the work of Cadham scientists.
This lack of transparency has alarmed Manitobans working in health care and diagnostics, who have pointed the Free Press in the direction of possible causes of the unexplained delay, including the lag in requesting Dynacare samples.
Provincial officials have stressed that Manitoba has done a better job than many jurisdictions in containing variant cases, thanks to restrictions on interprovincial travel and enhanced isolation rules.
On Monday, a Health Department spokeswoman said the new protocol should further help contain the risk of variants.
"We’ve quickly changed our processes and improved efficiencies over the last few weeks," the spokeswoman wrote, such as screening all positive COVID-19 samples for the three main variants that are causing the most global concern.
Dynacare accounts for about 40 per cent of Manitoba's COVID-19 tests. In January, the firm conducted 22,488 of the province’s total 57,180 reported tests, and in February it did 20,245 of the reported 46,563 tests.
Meanwhile, Manitoba has said it was monitoring for variants since early in the pandemic, even before mutant strains took over in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.
Yet it appears Cadham’s surveillance regime involved few Dynacare samples.
"For most of 2020, we were not requested to send any positive samples to Cadham," Bernhardt wrote.
With files from Michael Pereira