With B117 here we must aim for COVID zero or we will have a third wave and the worst lockdown yet

The Alberta government has rashly re-opened restaurants, gyms, and youth sports. In churches, Earls, and gathering-places across the province people are throwing caution out the window. And now new, extra-infectious variants of COVID-19 have established themselves in the province. Currently there are 156 reported cases of these new variants and they are growing exponentially

A terrible third wave is rapidly approaching and the lockdown it will spur—as soon as April—will be far stricter than past measures. We have to avoid this bleak scenario, and there’s just one way to do it: to decisively and explicitly aim for COVID zero, the absolute removal of COVID from the province.

B117, the UK variant of the coronavirus, is spreading in our communities. This new variant is 40 to 50 per cent more infectious than the original COVID-19 strain, which makes it incredibly difficult to contain and a growing threat to our struggling health care system. 

The current R-value, or reproductive value, for the original COVID-19 strain in Alberta is 0.87. An R-value of one means that one person infected with COVID-19 will infect one other person. If the R-value is higher than one, each person is infecting more than one other, which leads to the disease spreading exponentially. But if the R-value can be kept less than one, cases will fall and Alberta’s pandemic will sputter out. 

Today the R-value of B117 is about 1.30. So while our case counts on the original strain are decreasing by half every 28 days or so, the case counts of the new variant are rapidly increasing—doubling every nine days. The current infection control practices are managing to slowly decrease COVID-19 cases, but they’re not enough to keep B117 down. 

I’m a developmental biologist and bio-physicist by training. In my work I analyze how various biological phenomena grow and decay. I’ve created a model that has these two key initial assumptions–that B117 is 50 per cent more transmissible and that we have 10 daily new B117 community transmission cases. This model operates under the old rules and doesn’t include the planned reopening of restaurants, gyms and youth sports. 

B117, the red dashed curve on this chart, will be the dominant strain and be more numerous than the original COVID-19 strain (the blue dashed curve) in five to six weeks. Overall infections will go from decreasing to increasing exponentially. 

The COVID-19 statistics right now are deceptive, because the great majority of cases in Alberta are currently the original variant, which is declining. When you look at the sum total you don’t see the exponentially growing B117, which is just getting started. Once the new variant becomes dominant, which happens in early March in my model, it will take just three weeks for this third wave to get to 1000 new daily cases and then another nine days to reach 2000 daily cases in early April. By that time our healthcare system will be overwhelmed and we will need more than the light touch we’ve been giving COVID-19 until now, but a real and harsh lockdown in Alberta to stop our healthcare system from being completely overwhelmed. 

But this bleak scenario is not inevitable. We have a window of opportunity now, when the new variant is not yet well established and doesn’t have a strong foothold, to avoid that terrible future. 

Aiming for COVID zero today would mean driving the R-value of original strain down to 0.6. It’s a challenging goal, but not an impossible one. We have seen other jurisdictions do this like New Zealand, Austria and the state of Victoria in Australia. 

But replicating the successes of New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Atlantic Canada, and other jurisdictions that successfully crushed COVID epidemic, would require some specific actions.

AHS and the Alberta government must announce that the goal is no longer just to coast along until a vaccine arrives, but to work towards COVID zero starting today.

Every single incoming traveller—both international and interprovincial—must be quarantined for at least 14 days on arrival, and such quarantine must be supervised.

And the provincial government must provide full financial support to workers and businesses that are locked down and unable to earn income. Otherwise financial pressure will keep forcing people to go to, or operate, risky workplaces where the disease will continue to spread.

For 7 weeks we must implement the strongest lockdown measures yet. This means closing schools and most businesses. It means implementing aggressive testing, tracing, and isolation measures. We need to increase the availability of out-of-home isolation hotels, too. 

If these actions seem drastic now, consider how desperately and dramatically we’ll have to act if things fly out of control in April. We will have to lock down, either then or now. But if we act now, we can stop the deaths and disabilities that COVID is inflicting on our friends and family. We won’t have to yo-yo businesses and schools—we’ll be able to return to life as normal, just like the New Zealanders. You’ll be able to go out. You’ll be able to hug your friends.

It’s time for the Alberta government to stop waffling, to stop jerking us back and forth between strict controls and rash re-openings, and take decisive action to end this pandemic once and for all. No more confusing government communications. No more rules that change every week. These new variants won’t allow us the luxury of having just a little COVID. We need to crush it now or a third wave with a more infectious variant will permanently hurt our families, our communities, our healthcare system and our economy.

It’s time to end this. Premier Kenney, commit to COVID zero now!

Dr. Malgorzata (Gosia) Gasperowicz is a developmental biologist and a researcher at the University of Calgary, a co-founder of Zero Covid Canada group and a member of EndCoronavirus.org. She earned her Masters at the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology in Gdansk, Poland, and a PhD in biology at Albert Ludvig University of Freiburg, Germany. She currently lives in Calgary, Alberta.