THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 6, Season 11
Sunday, December 5, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister
Dr. Zain Chagla, Infectious Diseases Physician
Maryscott Greenwood, Canadian American Business Council CEO
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Ottawa announces new restrictions for international flights and rules for travellers, as concern spreads about the new Omicron variant.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: “Travel measures could change at any moment.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Those changes have sparked confusion for airports and travellers. So what are the rules and what will they mean for the holidays? We sit down with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General: “We’re learning more all the time about Omicron.”
Mercedes Stephenson: The race to shutdown Omicron. What the science says about the new COVID variant. We put your questions to infectious Doctor Zain Chagla.
The new U.S. ambassador to Canada is sworn-in. Will his arrival signal a new direction for Canada-U.S. relations as trade disputes heat up on both sides of the border?
It’s Sunday, December 5th, and this is The West Block.
Hello and thank you for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.
The United States is the latest country to tighten travel rules in an effort to try to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. All air passengers to the U.S., including Canadians, must now show a negative COVID test that was taken within one day of their departure. It’s just another change after Ottawa announced a number of new travel and testing rules last week.
Joining me now to talk about this is Transport Minister Omar Alghabra. Thank you so much for joining us, minister, nice to have you in the studio. First interview with us in-person and there are a lot of questions, so…
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Mercedes, it’s good to be with you in-studio. I’m also really grateful for the opportunity to speak with you and your viewers.
Mercedes Stephenson: The first thing, I think that I want to know, and a lot of people out there want to know, is what exactly are the new rules? Can you walk us through them?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Sure. So, you know, Canadians know that this is we’re still in a pandemic and the situation continues to evolve. And with the emergence of this new variant, we’re still waiting to hear more information about it, our government decided to act swiftly to mitigate the risk of further importation of this variant. And what we’ve done is, we’ve—based on the advice that we received from Public Health Agency of Canada and our experts, is that we’ve identified 10 countries where there is significant—there’s reports of significant community transmission of the variant, and we put them on a list where we asked Canadians to get a PCR test on their way back home from another country. Plus, we barred any foreign national who’s been to any of these 10 countries over the last 14 days from entering Canada. Those measures and now we’re testing upon arrival, everybody who comes from anybody in the world other than the U.S., 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.
Mercedes Stephenson: When are those tests upon arrival for people coming off of international flights going to kick-in because airports were saying late last week, they had no information about this. It sounded like it was immediate, but Health Canada wasn’t in the airports. When can people expect that those tests are going to be administered?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: The tests are being administered as we speak, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: At all the airports in Canada?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: At all airports, especially the major airports where most of the international flights arrive. We’ve already, by the way, had and continue to have, agents from Public Health Agency of Canada and CBSA who have been administrating tests under a random mandatory test regime. What we are doing now, we are ramping up those mandatory testing until we reach 100 per cent. So we are on our way to get to 100 per cent, but those tests are occurring as we speak.
Mercedes Stephenson: With those mandatory tests, where are they being administered because airports are saying we don’t have the capacity to cram a bunch of people into a room? Are you giving them to people to take home and then they have to isolate? How does that work?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: As we speak, the majority of tests are being done at the airports by, as I said, swabbed by our officials and representatives of Public Health Agency of Canada. However, we are going to, based on the volume, will adjust some passengers. Some passengers may take home take home tests, but for now our officials on the ground at the airports are administering these tests.
Mercedes Stephenson: The rules right now are that you have to be tested if you’re coming from an international destination other than the United States. Why did you not apply this to Americans or Canadians or anyone else coming out of the U.S.?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: First of all, let’s be clear, we have measures for travellers who are coming from the U.S.
Mercedes Stephenson: But different measures.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: There are requirements of pre-departure testing, PCR testing. There is a requirement for vaccination, for U.S. travellers to be fully vaccinated, and they could be subjected to the random mandatory testing. So currently today, we have 20 thousand tests a day at our borders. Both land borders and airport borders upon entry. The reason why the U.S. has not been subjected to these additional measures yet, however, we’re ready and we’re preparing in case we need to change that, is because we have no significant reporting of transmission of this new variant in the U.S.
Mercedes Stephenson: But aren’t you afraid that people might just try to go to the U.S. and then come to Canada so they can avoid the quarantine? I mean that’s a pretty logical workaround and it seems like a bit of a hole.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: So for anybody who’s been in any other country, they’re expected, they are required to declare where they’re coming from and based on the country they’re coming from, those measures will be applied to them.
Mercedes Stephenson: And is there any truth to the concern that this was actually there’s not enough testing capacity and therefore we’re seeing that dealing with Americans and American flights would just overwhelm the system versus that there’s no chance Omicron is going to become significant in the United States?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Look, as I said, there are very little reports of community transmission in the United States. If that changes, we will change our measures. We have capacity for testing. We’re ramping it up. There’s no doubt that this will stretch our capacity that exists today, but we have been acting swiftly, fast. I want to give a shout out to our officials at Public Health Agency of Canada who’ve really been adjusting their measures as quickly as possible because our priority is to protect the health and safety of Canadians but also to protect our economy. We don’t want to go back to lockdown days and we want to make sure that we do our best to protect Canadians at the borders.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’re bringing back quarantine hotels. Walk me through who has to be in a quarantine hotel versus who can go home and isolate, if they have a home and actually live in Canada?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: So anybody who, a Canadian or a permanent resident who’s eligible to enter Canada, has been to any of those 10 countries over the last 14 days, are subjected to a mandatory test upon arrival. Then they are expected to stay at a designated facility, including hotel for quarantine until their test results are out. Once a negative test result is out within a day or so, they will be able to finish their quarantine at a safe place at their home.
Mercedes Stephenson: This one I’ve gotten a ton of questions on and I don’t know the answer, so I’m looking forward to hearing if form you. When you say upon arrival, what does that mean for people who have a connection in Canada? Say you’re flying back from Rome and you land in Montreal, but your final destination is Vancouver. Where are you tested and where do you quarantine?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Sure. So if you are coming from any of those 10 countries, you are tested upon arrival wherever you arrive and you are expected to stay at a hotel wherever you arrive. However, if you are arriving from anywhere else in the world, from Rome, for example, you will be tested if you land in Toronto and then you’ll be allowed to go to Vancouver and quarantine at home for a day or two until your test results are out.
Mercedes Stephenson: So if you’re a Canadian, you can still go to your final destination, you’re just tested on arrival. But you can get on a plane before that test clears you.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Yes, as long as you’re doubly vaccinated and as long as you’re not coming from any of those 10 countries.
Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to land borders, you don’t have the same measures in place. For Canadians who are coming in or Americans who might be coming up for the holidays, what are the rules for travellers who are going to be driving into Canada?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: The same rules apply for whoever is coming from the U.S. at land borders or airports. So a requirement for a PCR test prior to arriving to the land border, a negative test, and then to be fully vaccinated and you might be subjected to a random mandatory test upon arrival at the border.
Mercedes Stephenson: Why not require everyone coming across the border to take one of those tests?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: So as I said, right now we’re basing our decisions on the experts’ advice that we get based on the information they have and to date, there haven’t been reports of community transmission of this variant in the U.S. So, if that changes, we are preparing to adjust our measures, including testing everyone at the land border if we need to.
Mercedes Stephenson: The U.S. says that in order to enter America, you have to have a negative test not 72 hours before, but the day before. Are you looking at changing that to require a shorter time window for negative tests before somebody can enter Canada?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: We’ll always be ready to adjust our measures. There’s a time of a pandemic where we have to adjust, however, we feel the layers of protections that we have are quite solid. So again, the PCR test prior to the arrival to the border….
Mercedes Stephenson: But what’s the science there between why do the Americans have a day and we have three days? It seems like a big difference.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Well it’s not the first time that we have some asymmetry between us and the United States. We still require fully vaccinated. We only allow U.S. travellers who are fully vaccinated into Canada and we have random mandatory testing at the border. The U.S. doesn’t have mandatory testing at their own borders. So because we have several layers of protection, we feel that the system together, the regime together offers a really good protection for Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: There’s been a lot of criticism of how your government has rolled this out, everyone from the airlines to the airports, to travellers who say it’s just been mass confusion. There’s not clarity. Why weren’t you better prepared for another variant that could trigger this because it seems at this point in the pandemic like more variants is a pretty predicable outcome.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Mercedes, we are prepared. We were prepared and the proof to that point is the fact that we acted so quickly, a day after the discovery of a variant…
Mercedes Stephenson: But it was pretty confusing.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Canadians know how fast-paced the environment that we’re in today. They know how there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of moving parts. It’s a pandemic, circumstances change quickly and they look to their government to act swiftly and quickly to do whatever they can to protect Canadians. I understand that others will have questions about these new measures and like you did, clarify what do we need to do and how we need to do it, but they need to know that their governments acted quickly and convincingly to protect their health and safety. No doubt there is still uncertainty in the air and I wish we didn’t have it. However, we’re in a pandemic and their government, Canadians’ government is acting very fast and swiftly to protect their health and safety.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, thank you for joining us, nice to see you today. Take care.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Nice to see you. Thank you very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, deciphering Omicron. We’ll speak to an infectious diseases specialist about the new variant and what the data says about the kind of risks it poses.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The WHO says the new COVID variant, Omicron, is likely to spread and poses a very high global risk. That’s led countries like Canada to change air travel testing rules and to step up vaccination efforts.
To answer some of your questions about this new variant, I’m joined by Dr. Zain Chagla. He’s an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Health Care in Hamilton. Doctor, thank you so much for joining us today. Nobody wanted to have to talk about yet another variant, but this seems to be part of COVID now that we can expect more. What do we know about Omicron?
Dr. Zain Chagla, Infectious Diseases Physician: So from the molecular part, so the structure of this virus, we see a significant number of mutations and, you know, more than we’ve ever seen. When we talk about Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, the prior variants, there are 5-10 mutations and some with a little bit more transmissibility, some with a little bit more immune escape. And with Omicron, we’re seeing over 30 and some of these have not been seen in a variant before. So that’s number one that’s the problem. But number two is what’s happening in the part of the world it was first being described. Not where it originated but where it was first being described in the region outside Johannesburg in South Africa where they’ve seen growth that is, you know, incredible compared to other waves, where, you know, a population where there was 70 to 80 per cent immunity through natural infection, when it was 30 per cent immunity through vaccination, you’re seeing today 16 thousand cases compared to a few hundred cases only a couple of weeks ago.
Mercedes Stephenson: So certainly seems like it’s spreading faster. What do we know about the way that it makes people sick and whether it is more or less aggressive than previous variants?
Dr. Zain Chagla, Infectious Diseases Physician: Yeah, I mean that’s the big question and there’s a lot of confounding here. Part of it is the fact that, you know, it is spreading in a population that had a lot of immunity and some that’s had vaccine derived immunity. Some of the initial reports are people are coming in with relatively mild, which is good considering the number of people it’s been infecting. That being said, the hospitalizations in that region of the world are increasing significantly and increasing week on week, they may not be as profound as prior waves, but there certainly is a health care demand that’s being seen across all age groups, particularly those who are unvaccinated. There is also some evidence that people who have had prior infection, not vaccinated but prior infection, are at higher risk of being re-infected by this variant as compared to anything else in the past.
Mercedes Stephenson: Wow, that’s really interesting and there are so many questions I know still. They’re studying it and trying to look at it and we’re watching science unfold in real-time. One of the big debates we’ve seen politically, and people use science on both sides of it, is travel bans. The government was slow to implement them in previous waves. They moved very quickly in this one and now they’re taking a lot of criticism from that. Do travel bans work as a way to slow down the entry of the virus?
Dr. Zain Chagla, Infectious Diseases Physician: Way at the beginning of this in 2020, when we thinking about travel bans, there was, you know, the thought that a) most of the people that had COVID-19 were symptomatic and they were shedding when they were symptomatic and, you know, as long as you could screen them and target them, you’d be able to stop the spread of the virus. Well, we learned quickly that there’s a large asymptomatic phase and, you know, much of the transmission is actually done by the time symptoms start. And so that really puts a lot of challenges into using particular travel bans because, you know, as long as certain people who are infectious get on your soil, even if they don’t have symptoms, they may not, you know, they may start cascades of infection. We’re hearing about community transmission in the United States. We’re hearing about community transmission in Europe and so, you know, again, you know, slapping certain countries with travel bans and not banning everyone really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Using a mitigation strategy of testing at the airport is probably a long term solution that makes the most sense considering again, 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 be the Omicron variant back to Canada.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know a lot of people talk about boosters and NACI put out a statement on Friday talking about boosters and when we’ll get them. Are boosters a way out of this pandemic? Is that the new way of life? Like flu shots, people are going to get them every year, and how does that address the global situation if we’re continually re-upping our vaccination here, but vaccination isn’t happening in places like South Africa or Botswana?
Dr. Zain Chagla, Infectious Diseases Physician: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, the last point here is probably the most important, right? You know this is not—this is going to be a global problem until we have global solutions. The World Health Organization (WHO) is trying to organize a pandemic treaty, such that countries don’t act alone and act in a global context. And we’re seeing, you know, 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. And so we’re not safe until everyone is safe. You know there is some data for boosters. I’m not going to say there isn’t. There is data that’s come out of Israel. There are some randomized clinical trials that do show boosters may reduce symptomatic disease in some individuals and going from 70 per cent protection back to 95 per cent protection. In severe cases, you know, particularly those over the age of 70, there may be a reduction in people ending up in hospital. In younger cases, it’s not as clear if that benefit is there given the risk is so, so low. And so, you know, there may be some benefits on a population level by giving boosters in some populations. We still have to be very mindful of what supply we take from the world. Unfortunately, or fortunately, because Canada does have a large stockpile that we’ve conserved over the last few months, you know, we are largely eroding away at that. The supply is very difficult to redeploy elsewhere in the world because of expiry dates. But, you know, similarly going into the future, we really have to be cognisant of the fact that we can’t stockpile this vaccine, that there are many, many buyers that need this vaccine and a dose that ends up on Canadian soil is a dose that’s not ending up elsewhere in the world.
Mercedes Stephenson: Doctor, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your expertise.
Dr. Zain Chagla, Infectious Diseases Physician: No problem, all the best.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Canada’s trade minister headed back to Washington last week. There’s a lot at stake from softwood lumber to P.E.I. potatoes. We’ll ask former U.S. diplomat Maryscott Greenwood about the latest rounds of trade disputes between Canada and the United States.
Mercedes Stephenson: Trade Minister Mary Ng wrapped up a Team Canada style mission to Washington last week. The visit comes as the new U.S. ambassador to Canada was sworn-in by Vice-President Kamala Harris.
Kamala Harris, Vice-President of the United States: “I, David L. Cohen…”
Mercedes Stephenson: David Cohen steps into the role as Canada and the U.S. face some significant trade challenges.
Joining us now to discuss this is Maryscott Greenwood. She is the CEO of the Canadian American Business Council and a partner with Crestview Strategy. Nice to see you, Scotty. A pretty high-stakes trip down there, how did Canada’s ministers’ do?
Maryscott Greenwood, Canadian American Business Council CEO: Well it’s good to see you, too, Mercedes. And the trip was incredibly important and it’s part of an ongoing dialogue. It’s part of an ongoing process. It’s not like you just come down in the 11th hour in this case, which is what this is for President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation and the in the 11th hour say, hey, by the way, can you change these three things for us? You’ve got to be present every step of the way and the good news, if there is good news, is even if the electric vehicle tax credit isn’t resolved immediately, there are lots of more opportunities to work at it. So this is part of, you know, again, an ongoing process and it needs to continue.
Mercedes Stephenson: What are sort of the biggest concerns here and challenges in terms of the trade relationship?
Maryscott Greenwood, Canadian American Business Council CEO: Well there is a whole host of issues, Mercedes, and some of them are tried and true, have been keeping trade lawyers fully employed for generations and generations. And by that, I think about softwood lumber. So that’s a big one and it’s back. We also have an issue with respect to P.E.I. potatoes, so we’ve got to deal with that. Separately, you’ve got electric vehicles, you’ve got Buy American and you’ve got some requirements in what’s known as the National Defence Authorization Act, which has to do with the U.S. content. So there’s no shortage of issues and that’s just from the U.S. side of the border. Of course, there are also issues in Canada that the U.S. will have opinions about.
Mercedes Stephenson: Scotty, how do you change the administration’s mind about some of these things? I mean obviously it plays well in the United States domestically when you say we’re going to do Buy American. How do you convince the president not to apply that to Canada or Congress?
Maryscott Greenwood, Canadian American Business Council CEO: Well conversations are really important, Mercedes, and so the conversations have been, you know, reinitiated with gusto, I would say, starting with right before the North American leader summit and then continuing right through with Minister Ng’s visit. Premiers are visiting. Premier Houston of Nova Scotia was here this week and I think we’ll have lots and lots of more visits. So the way you talk to the Biden administration is by continued engagement and not just with the White House, as important as that is and with the cabinet, but also with Congress, also with governors, also with thought leaders and that seems to be the approach that Canada is now taking once again.
Mercedes Stephenson: Scotty, we have a new ambassador in David Cohen from the United States. Does that change anything?
Maryscott Greenwood, Canadian American Business Council CEO: Mercedes, it’s a big game changer. You’ve got to have your team captain laced up and skating on the ice and we have that now for the United States government and what a thoughtful, diligent, serious interlocutor David Cohen is. So I think we’re quite fortunate that he is in Ottawa. Nothing like arriving in the wintertime to welcome an ambassador to Canada, but it does make a big difference and I’m really glad he’s there.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well good to hear we’ll have someone close to the Biden White House to bend and ear. Scotty Greenwood, thank you so much for joining us.
Maryscott Greenwood, Canadian American Business Council CEO: My pleasure. Good to see you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks so much for watching. We’ll see you right back here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.