In the last two weeks, more than 100 international flights landing in Canada have carried at least one positive COVID-19 case on board, according to the federal government.
At least 32 of those flights were from India.
Alghabra addressed the decision in a press conference on Thursday evening.
“The COVID-19 pandemic can change rapidly,” he said on Thursday, citing rising pressure on the Canadian health-care system and the “continued spread of variants of concern.”
“I am suspending all commercial and passenger flights arriving in Canada from India and Pakistan for 30 days.”
The measure goes into effect at 11:30 p.m. ET on Thursday and does not affect cargo flights.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said 1.8 per cent of cases detected so far are in travellers, but that eliminating direct travel from both India and Pakistan is intended to give health officials time to sequence and better understand the variant first detected in India.
Half of air travellers that have tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Canada came from India, according to Hajdu, even though only one-fifth of air traffic involved Indian flights.
While not officially designated as a variant of concern by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), B.1.617 is being treated as a variant of interest and is being described as a “double mutant” due to a pair of mutations that the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare says may confer “immune escape and increased infectivity.”
“We should be worried,” said Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and a medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre.
“If a variant can spread into another country, that means it has some capacity for survival fitness and that usually means it’s as or more transmissible than the current strain.”
It is natural for all viruses to mutate, as their genetic material undergoes small changes during outbreaks.
Prior to the announcement on Thursday, MPs unanimously called on the government to suspend international flights from countries where COVID-19 outbreaks are raging.
India has been flooded with new COVID-19 infections, with over 314,000 new cases recorded on Thursday alone – the highest daily increase recorded anywhere in the world. The surge is threatening India’s hospitals, with some issuing notices to say they have only a few hours of medical oxygen required to keep COVID-19 patients alive.
When pressed on the possibility of a country-specific travel ban on Wednesday, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the policies “only go so far.” She cited the P.1 variant, which first emerged in Brazil, as an example of those limits.
“The P.1 variant has been picked up through border screening, but not just from Brazil,” Tam explained.
“It’s actually in … somewhere between 40 and 50 other countries (now). So country-specific targeted measures can only go so far.”
The concern was echoed by her deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo.
“We know that, with viruses, it’s practically impossible to prevent new variants from arriving here in Canada,” he said Wednesday.
“It’s very important to do contact tracing and lots of testing. There are many things that we must continue to do here in Canada besides just focusing on what’s going on at the border.”
Nevertheless, Canada joins Pakistan, Hong Kong, the U.K. and New Zealand in limiting travel from India, although British citizens that have been to the country are allowed to return home.
Alghabra said the government “will not hesitate to ban flights from other countries” if required.
—With files from Global’s Saba Aziz and the Canadian Press.