A new COVID-19 variant of concern first identified in South Africa has prompted Canada to bring in new travel restrictions — though some experts have suggested that the mutant virus is likely already here and that we should instead be focusing on international aid.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced Friday afternoon that the Canadian government would be introducing a total of five measures to limit the spread of the new variant — including restricting entry to foreign nationals who’ve travelled through a handful of African countries in the past 14 days.
The mutation, known as B.1.1.529 and named Omicron, was designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a variant of concern earlier Friday shortly after worrying reports of the virus’ spread across South Africa began to emerge.
A handful of nations including the U.K., India, Japan, Israel and the European Union were among those imposing travel bans alongside Canada on some South African nations Friday, though several experts say that closing the border and punishing countries — some of which have the lowest vaccination rates in the world — is the “wrong move.”
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, infectious diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners, told Global News in an interview shortly before Health Canada’s announcement that imposing travel bans on certain countries would be doing more harm than good, noting that the variant was most likely “already here.”
“We have to remember that you can’t stop a respiratory virus from coming in with travel because there’s all sorts of other ways that it can be introduced into the country like through supply chains,” said Chakrabarti.
“It’s akin to playing goalie and having 30 people shoot pucks on you at the same time, you’re just not going to keep this out.”
In a press conference shortly after the federal government’s announcement, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam pointed especially to Omicron’s high number of mutations — which revealed the potential for increased transmissibility, greater impact to the body’s immune system and reduced response to vaccines.
While Chakrabarti pointed to some of the preliminary data that Tam also referenced, he also was quick to note South Africa’s low vaccination rate, which sits under 30 per cent of its total population.
The variant does not yet show evidence of being any deadlier than the current dominant strains of COVID-19 according to the preliminary research, and with vaccines still offering high rates of protection against severe infection, Chakrabarti and other experts aren’t too worried over its spread — yet.
Even if the variant was introduced to Canada, Chakrabarti said it would still be very unlikely to “rip through the population” like previous variants of concern did — all because of the country’s vaccination rates.
“…one thing I really, really want to make clear is that I don’t want to discount this, but I don’t want to sensationalize it, either,” he said.
The new variant was identified earlier this week after a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in South Africa’s most populous province. To date, the Omicron variant has been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Israel, Belgium and Hong Kong.
Canada’s new measures on Friday prevent foreign travelers who visited South Africa and six other countries — Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique — in the last 14 days from entering Canada.
Travellers from those countries who’ve already arrived in Canada within the last 14 days will now have to quarantine and get tested for COVID-19.
Citizens and permanent residents coming to Canada will need to be tested on arrival, and will have to quarantine until they test negative. Global Affairs Canada will also issue a travel advisory against southern Africa.
The WHO previously warned against travel restrictions — a warning Canada and many other countries appear to have ignored.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing.
“The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing (curbs).”
Top U.S. infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that there was still no indication that the variant was in the U.S., and that no decision had been made yet on a travel ban.
One epidemiologist in Hong Kong, where the variant had also spread, echoed Chakrabarti’s comments on Omicron’s spread — telling Reuters that it may be too late now to tighten travel.
“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.
Speaking with Global News earlier Friday, infectious diseases physician Dr. Zain Chagla also warned against stringent border restrictions, reasoning that a more effective way to prevent the variant’s spread would be to increase vaccination rates in south African countries as opposed to locking them out from the rest of the world.
“We’re vaccinated now, and if the vaccines hold up against severity — what’s the end goal here? Are we shutting down southern Africa?” asked Chagla.
“Number one, it’s pretty unjust to expect this place of the world that has limited access to vaccines … to then say ‘oh you identified a problem? Now we’re going to shut out travel to you and your access to the western world.'”
Chagla said if the virus really was that much more transmissible, it would more than likely take over all of Africa and spread throughout the world — even to the countries with significant travel restrictions.
Instead, Chagla argued that we should be focusing on providing aid to these countries, like helping with their vaccine rollout and medical supplies as opposed to a more “reactive” shut down of borders.
“We have to start thinking long-term,” he said.
— with files from Reuters and Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea and Shallima Maharaj