QUEBEC CITY -- The government of Quebec is showing its intention to keep an eye on the worrying spread of novel coronavirus variants around the world by launching a scientific initiative.

Minister of Health and Social Services Christian Dube and Economy and Innovation Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon announced Friday that $11.1 million has been granted to the Quebec Institute of Public Health (INSPQ) for the deployment of the COVID-19 variant surveillance program in Quebec.

The program aims to sequence 65,000 samples that tested positive for the novel coronavirus by the end of 2021. The objective is to identify the genetic mutations of the virus, identify the variants and determine their impact on transmission, the severity of the disease and response to vaccines to support the Government of Quebec in managing the pandemic.

Three variants of the virus potentially more transmissible and more virulent have been detected in Great Britain, South Africa and Brazil.

These new strains of the virus are spreading around the world and the Quebec government believes it is important to intensify the surveillance of variants to prevent a resurgence of the epidemic in Quebec.

To date, six cases of the British variant have been confirmed in Quebec.

Variant surveillance already started in Quebec in April 2020 thanks to a Genome Canada project.

To date, approximately 7,000 positive samples have been sequenced in Quebec, which represents approximately 3 per cent of all positive samples.

The Quebec program will make it possible to identify these variants more quickly by sequencing more positive samples. The objective is to reach 10 per cent of the sequenced positive samples, thus ensuring rapid detection of the variants of the viruses of concern's emergence.

The Variant Surveillance Program will be led by the INSPQ's Laboratoire de santé publique du Québec, in conjunction with the Fonds de recherche du Québec and Génome Québec. The McGill University Genome Centre, the National Microbiology Laboratory of Canada (NML) and several researchers are also collaborating on the project.

-- this report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2021.