COVID-19 in B.C.: Infection cluster from family gathering, researchers seek medical solutions for coronavirus

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      Although B.C. is continuing to maintain low numbers of new COVID-19 cases, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry remains concerned about continued increases in cases in other areas, including the United States, which is approaching two million cases.

      Daily update

      At today’s B.C. COVID-19 briefing (June 9), Dr. Henry confirmed nine new cases plus one epi-linked case, which brings the provincial cumulative total to 2,669 cases.

      According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), eight of those cases are in the Fraser Health region while one is in Vancouver Coastal Health and another one is in Northern Health.

      So far during the pandemic, there have been 908 cases in Vancouver Coastal Health, 1,370 in Fraser Health, 130 in Island Health, 195 in Interior Health, and 66 in Northern Health.

      Once again, there aren’t any new healthcare outbreaks, leaving only four active outbreaks at longterm care facilities. There also aren’t any new cases in the healthcare sector, leaving the total cases at 340 residents and 218 staff.

      There also aren’t any new community outbreaks, with six active outbreaks remaining.

      Currently, the number of active cases—183—remains the same as yesterday, again with 16 people in hospital (four of those patients are in intensive care units).

      For the fourth consecutive day, there weren’t any new deaths announced (a total of 167 people have died from COVID-19).

      A total of 2,319 people have now recovered.

      According to the BCCDC, there have been 1,072 new conducted tests over the past day and almost 160,000 people have been tested, or 26,184 people per one million population (the national testing rate is 50,462 per one million population).

      Infections from family gathering

      Despite the good news about cases in B.C., Dr. Henry cautioned that British Columbians cannot stop taking precautions.

      As an unfortunate example that she said serves as a warning, about 30 people recently attended a family gathering held both indoors and outdoors in the Fraser Health region. Half of them have since tested positive for COVID-19 so far.

      She also expressed disappointment that protests in Vancouver and Victoria have broken provincial health officer orders for bans on gatherings of more than 50 people, as it could put the province at risk for losing control of the virus.

      “I want everyone to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic around us is far from over,” Dr. Henry stated. “In British Columbia, we continue to have small numbers of cases, but across Canada and around the world, it is still a major problem and it’s going to be in our communities around the world for some time now.”

      She noted that yesterday was the highest amount of new cases in a single day worldwide, with 136,000 new cases confirmed on June 7 with three-quarters of those cases in the Americas and South Asia.

      “More than six months into the pandemic, this is not the time for any country to take its foot off the pedal,” World Health Organization director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated on June 7.

      Canada is beginning the process of allowing families to reunite from across the Canada-U.S. border while film and TV productions will also begin resuming activity, which will include workers arriving from the U.S. as well, in the next phase of the reopening plan.

      All arrivals in Canada must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, according to both federal and provincial health orders.

      B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix (who was absent from today’s briefing) said yesterday that he does not foresee the Canada-U.S. border reopening in the near future and news reports state that the border will most likely remain closed to non-essential travel until late July.

      Province of British Columbia

      Searching for solutions

      Meanwhile, Dr. Henry will represent four major charities that have teamed up to form the B.C. COVID-19 Combat Collective to fundraise for provincial research teams.

      As announced on June 3, the BCCDC Foundation for Public Health, B.C. Cancer Foundation, Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) and UBC Hospital Foundation, and UBC will raise funding for researchers from various fields working on efforts to detect, neutralize, and fight COVID-19.

      BCCDC researchers are assessing susceptibility and immunity to the virus among the general population and evaluating the public health response so that experts can develop fast-response public health measures for subsequent virus waves and future pandemics.

      Meanwhile, B.C. Cancer experts are trying to decode the disease while developing testing and treatments. The team will apply expertise in genomics, disease detection, and treatment development to test for the coronavirus with four innovative technologies and will include light and breath samples.

      VGH is participating in the CONCOR-1 national clinical trial to test for a potential COVID-19 treatment using plasma from recovered individuals. The first VGH patients are anticipated to receive this therapy by the end of this month.

      UBC is investing in infrastructure for COVID-19 researchers, including a provincial biobank and clinical trial networks, so that research from labs and clinics across the province can be implemented in new treatments and to prepare for future pandemics.

      Donations to the B.C. COVID-19 Combat Collective can be made online.

      Predicting COVID-19 mutations

      In other medical research news, the Digital Technology Supercluster COVID-19 Program has given three UBC researchers a $1.8 million grant for a project about predicting future mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID-19), according to a June 5 news release.

      Dr. Robert Brunham, a former B.C. Centre for Disease Control executive director and a UBC infectious disease professor who was involved in the 2003 SARS outbreak response; UBC physics and astronomy professor Steven Plotkin; and UBC biochemistry professor Natalie Strynadka will work with a team of academic and commercial collaborators on Predicting the Evolution of COVID-19, which will involve artificial intelligence, computer modelling, and structural biology.

      The findings of the project will be used in the early design of effective tests, therapies, and vaccines to predict future pandemics that may be caused by changes in virus strains.

      The first six months of the project will focus on generating atomic resolution experimental data to assist computational algorithms to predict future mutations of the virus.

      The project will also work on creating a universal antibody therapy that the virus won’t be able to elude by mutating.

      “Given past outbreaks such as SARS and MERS, which were also caused by coronaviruses, there is no reason to assume that another pandemic wouldn’t happen again,” Plotkin explained in a news release. “This is a problem that is not going to go away on its own, so we have to be forward-thinking in finding solutions for it.”

      The project will be led by Vancouver-based company Terramera (which combines science, nature, and artificial intelligence) and will include D-Wave, Menten AI, Microsoft, and ProMIS Neurosciences as partners.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.