Transport Minister Omar Alghabra is standing by the decision not to extend new COVID-19 travel restrictions to the United States, saying the government has “no significant reporting of transmission of this new (Omicron) variant in the U.S.”
His comments come as the government implemented multiple new travel restrictions after the discovery of the Omicron variant. According to the new rules, anyone coming into Canada from a country other than the United States will have to be tested on arrival, then isolate and await their results.
“Those measures are temporary for us to learn more about this variant, to learn more about its severity, and we will continually adjust based on the advice and the information that we get,” Alghabra said, speaking during an interview with The West Block host Mercedes Stephenson.
“There are very little reports of community transmission (of Omicron) in the United States. If that changes, we will change our measures.”
As of Friday, Canada had identified 12 cases of the Omicron variant in the country, while the United States had reported just 10 cases in total. However, there have been at least two known U.S. cases of community transmission — one in a fully-vaccinated man in Minnesota who had recently travelled to New York City, and another in an individual in Hawaii with no recent history of travel.
Meanwhile, Canada has an even stricter set of rules in place for travellers from 10 African countries: South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt.
South Africa reported thousands of new cases daily this week, and the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said that 74 per cent of the 249 samples sequenced in November were identified as Omicron.
Foreign nationals who have been in these countries in the last 14 days are not allowed into Canada, and any Canadians travelling home from these countries will have to be tested at the airport and would have to quarantine while awaiting their test results.
“We’re hearing about community transmission in the United States. We’re hearing about … community transmission in Europe,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla told Stephenson on The West Block.
“And so, slapping certain countries with travel bans and not banning everyone really doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Alghabra said there are still a number of requirements for travellers from the United States. They still have to adhere to rules about pre-departure PCR testing, they must be fully vaccinated and they could be subjected to mandatory testing, he explained.
“Currently, today, we have 20,000 tests a day at our borders, both land borders and airport borders, upon entry,” Alghabra said.
“We have capacity for testing. We’re ramping it up. There’s no doubt that this will stretch our our capacity that exists today, but we have been acting swiftly.”
Testing policies are likely to be more effective than travel bans, according to Chagla.
“Using a mitigation strategy of testing at the airport is probably a long-term solution that makes the most sense,” he said.
“You could be in the United States or you could be in sub-Saharan Africa and face a similar risk, depending on what’s going on, to bring the Omicron variant back to Canada.”
New guidance on boosters
The new travel rules weren’t the only big COVID-19 announcement the government made this week. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended on Friday that Canadians over the age of 50 should get a COVID-19 booster shot — and that those aged 18 to 49 should be offered them six months after their second dose, too.
But according to Chagla, the benefits of keeping vaccines in Canada for booster shots aren’t as clear-cut as the benefits of sharing them with other nations that are struggling with their rollout.
“There is some data for boosters. I’m not going to say there isn’t. There is data that’s coming out of Israel. There’s some randomized clinical trials that do show boosters may reduce symptomatic disease in some individuals,” Chagla said.
“There may be some benefits on a population level to giving boosters in some populations.”
But, Chagla warned, Canada really must be “cognizant of the fact” that it “can’t stockpile this vaccine.”
“As long as we’re connected to each other via travel, we’re going to be connected to each other via variants one way or another,” he said.
“We’re not safe until everyone is safe.”
In areas where there are low vaccination rates, the virus is more likely to spread, experts have repeatedly said. The more the virus spreads — and the more it replicates — the more likely it is that it will mutate.
Those mutations can sometimes be advantageous for the virus, for example, by making it more transmissible, or teaching it to evade vaccines.
“In Africa, the vaccination rate is seven per cent — seven per cent compared to about 70-plus per cent in Canada,” said WHO adviser Dr. Peter Singer in an interview with Global News on Thursday.
“That’s a breeding ground for variants.”
This should be part of the equation as Canada considers its booster strategy, according to Chagla.
“There are many, many buyers that need this vaccine,” he said, “and a dose that ends up on Canadian soil is a dose that’s not ending up elsewhere in the world.”