The federal government is implementing a travel ban on several south African countries after a new COVID-19 variant was discovered there.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced Friday the government will impose five measures in an effort to limit the spread of the new variant.
Foreign nationals who have travelled through southern Africa in the past 14 days won’t be allowed into the country, he said. Those countries include South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
All those who’ve arrived in Canada in the last 14 days will have to quarantine and get tested for the virus. They will have to stay in isolation until they receive a negative test result.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents coming from those countries must take a COVID-19 test before they return, and will need to quarantine at a designated hotel until they receive a negative result.
After that, they’ll be able to quarantine at home until they test negative 10 days after arrival.
Global Affairs Canada will also issue an advisory against travel to southern Africa, and Canadians returning from that region who travel through another country must be tested in that country before they can come home.
“We really want to make sure we’re doing all we can to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” Duclos said.
The latest variant of concern: Omicron
The new variant, called Omicron, was dubbed a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Friday afternoon. It has spooked countries around the world since the announcement of its discovery on Thursday.
Great Britain, India, Japan, Israel and European Union nations are among those imposing travel bans Friday on several southern African nations where the mutation was discovered.
The variant, also known as B.1.1.529, has so far been detected in South Africa and Botswana, as well as in Israel, Belgium and Hong Kong.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said Friday that Omicron is “unusual” in that it has multiple mutations in two key areas of the virus’ spike protein.
“One area of mutations is in the spike receptor binding domain, where the virus attaches itself and invades our cells, which could signify a potential for increased transmissibility of the virus,” she said.
“The other area of mutations is in what is referred to as the antigenic supersite, because it is a target for our body’s defensive or neutralizing antibodies.”
Tam said health officials are concerned about the new variant and are “closely monitoring the evolving situation.”
South Africa spike
While the data on Omicron so far is considered preliminary, scientists are not sure whether the mutation is more deadly, if it will be more dominant than the highly contagious Delta variant, and if it is capable of evading current COVID-19 vaccines in circulation.
In South Africa, data shows COVID-19 cases rising. More than 1,200 were reported on Wednesday and 2,465 on Thursday. This comes after weeks of the country seeing a much smaller daily case rate – around 200, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa said Thursday.
South Africa has a full vaccination rate of roughly 35 per cent.
On Friday morning, the WHO met to discuss the variant. The organization said the first known Omicron infection was detected in a specimen collected on Nov. 9. It was informed about the strain by South African officials on Wednesday.
The WHO said it would take weeks to determine how effective vaccines are against the variant and how transmissible it is. However, preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, it said.
WHO calls fall on deaf ears
The WHO also came out against travel restrictions in light of the new variant on Friday, though many countries have done so anyway.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing (curbs).”
The United States is the latest to join the growing group of countries banning travel from South Africa and other African nations by non-U.S. citizens. The ban is set to begin Monday.
Too little, too late?
As several countries react to the discovery, one epidemiologist in Hong Kong told Reuters it may be too late to tighten travel curbs.
“Most likely this virus is already in other places. And so if we shut the door now, it’s going to be probably too late,” said Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong.
During the news conference, Tam told reporters it wouldn’t be surprising if Omicron was already in Canada.
“It’s very difficult to keep a virus like this out entirely,” she said. “I don’t think people should be surprised if we did get a detection.”
COVID-19 has swept the world in the almost two years since it was first identified in central China, infecting almost 260 million people and killing 5.4 million, Reuters reports.
— with files from Reuters and The Associated Press