Saskatchewan health experts weigh in on possible impact of Omicron variant on holiday season

A person wears a mask to protect them from the COVID-19 virus while walking by information about the ongoing pandemic in Kingston, Ontario on Monday, April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg

While the SARS-CoV-2 Omnicron variant of concern is still in early stages in Canada, health experts expect to see it spread much more quickly and aggressively than the delta variant, which could pose added concerns for the holiday season.

University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine said Monday that the new COVID-19 variant is a different branch of mutation from the Delta variant.

“What we know about this particular variant is that it is highly mutated, much more so than any of the other variants of concern,” Muhajarine said. “That is notable. It has about three times as many mutations in that spike protein compared to all other variants of concern. It can replicate and survive in human cells better so transmissibility is higher.”

“It’s been super-mutated, really.”

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It may take scientists two to four weeks before they fully understand how it will spread and affect the population — including those with antibodies from previous COVID-19 infections.

Muhajarine also said the new strain could not have emerged at a worse time for Canadians.

“This holiday season, this is the second year in a row we have to be careful about getting together in large groups, for long times inside,” Muhajarine said, “Particularly with people whose vaccination status we don’t know.”

He added that people should exercise all of the precautions they were taking before the vaccine rollout, and avoid spending time with people with an unknown vaccination status.

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“I would not recommend mixing with people whose vaccine status is not known, or if they do not want to divulge it,” he said. “If you are vaccinated, please share that information with whomever you come into contact. Don’t wait until they ask you, just say so, because it’s a really good thing to share.”

He says travel bans likely won’t stop this variant, but recommends stronger testing and isolation protocols to create a stronger barrier against quickly evolving mutations.

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Health Minister Paul Merriman addressed questions about the province’s response to the new variant Monday afternoon.

His main message was that things would remain the same until the province’s chief medical officer of health had more information.

“I think (the public) should continue to do what they have been doing in terms of adhering to public health measures,” Merriman said. “Go and get vaccinated and make sure that you’re social distancing. Do your personal risk assessment. We’re keeping an eye on this. We’re keeping a very close eye.

“I met with Dr. Shahab specifically on this this morning to get his point of view. He’s keeping a very close eye to make sure when we do get some information that we’ll be able to give that out to the general public but for right now it’s status quo.”

Merriman said he isn’t aware of any samples of the new variant that have become available for testing but that the province is prepared for their arrival.

“I’m told labs are ready to go to make sure we can test for this specific variant,” he said.

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Provincial health officials continue to push for more vaccinations, boosters for those who may need them, and continued diligence with public health guidelines.

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