VANCOUVER -- A lab at a downtown Vancouver hospital has uncovered more cases of a highly contagious COVID-19 than has been recorded in all of the United States and CTV News has learned they've detected a spike in recent days.

A team of researchers at St. Paul's Hospital first detected an entire cluster of cases of the P.1 variant – most commonly associated with Brazil – that were previously unknown earlier this month. In subsequent days, they’ve found even more. As of Friday at noon, they revealed they've discovered a total of 215 of the P.1 variant through their screening, a number not yet reported by provincial officials.

The lab tests positive samples from multiple collection locations accounting for about 70 per cent of the tests in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and is not reflective of patients in the hospital.

“At St. Paul’s Hospital we’ve actually identified more P.1 variants than the entire United States,” said. Dr. Marc Romney, co-author and medical leader of the microbiology and virology department at the facility. “This is concerning because P.1 is associated with immune evasion.”

Public health officials had identified 176 cases of the P.1 variant in the figures they provided on Wednesday; on Mar. 10 there were only 14. In Canada, there are 240 confirmed cases publicly reported, while the entire United States, which has about 10 times Canada's population, has just 79 according to data released Friday

When the province released its updated case count Friday afternoon, there were only 199 cases of the P.1 variant cited, but Romney expected the discrepancy as publicly available numbers are often delayed, and the provincial health officer has said there's often days' of lag in the data.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control's website says “the variant first reported in Japan but later identified in Brazil, which may be able to re-infect people who have had COVID-19, and may hide from the body's immune system” and there have been concerns that current vaccines may not be as effective in preventing infection.

The most concerning variant

There's a growing consensus among virologists and epidemiologists that it may be the most dangerous of all the variants: the spike proteins are "stickier," making them more likely to infect people and their positive charge repels antibodies, making it harder for the body to prevent infection.

The death toll in Brazil is soaring, where thousands of people are dying daily and ICU capacity in several states is overwhelmed, despite having a younger population than Canada.

While the country’s president is blamed for badly mishandling the pandemic, epidemiologists say the P.1 variant is spreading with ferocious speed, re-infecting those who’d recuperated and being far more contagious than traditional COVID-19.

Epidemiologists have emphasized that it's natural for RNA viruses to have variations or mutations and the emergence of variants that perpetuate the coronavirus haven't come as a surprise.

​Top doctor claims Vancouver cluster 'contained'

Despite the rapidly growing number of cases in B.C., the province's top doctor has somewhat downplayed the P.1 variant, pointing to the majority of cases being the B.1.1.7 strain first identified in the United Kingdom. On Thursday, she revealed there had been several clusters and seemed more focussed on that variant than she had been before.

"The P.1 we've been seeing primarily in Vancouver Coastal but we've also had a couple of clusters in Fraser Health and (a couple) in the Interior, and so yes, we are watching those very carefully," she told reporters when asked about that strain.

Henry says that now "close to 100 per cent" of positive COVID samples are screened for variants. In contrast, the United States is sequencing a tiny fraction, raising concerns they have little true idea how prevalent variants are there.

"Even though the (P.1) numbers are going up, they're clustered together in their groups of people who have been transmitting within that group," she said. "We've been able to prevent the next generation of transmission but it is harder, the greater the number of cases there are."

Romney is advocating for a more aggressive approach, suggesting stricter restrictions in the short-term can prevent a longer pandemic with prolonged half-measures.

“We’re about to have to deal with the third wave — it’s already arrived in Ontario, it’s inevitable, in my opinion, in British Columbia,” he said. “We’re just at the cusp of seeing an influx of variants. So it’s a critical point in the pandemic and now is not the time to be complacent.”