The Omicron COVID-19 variant was first detected in South Africa and Botswana last week. On Friday, the World Health Organization declared B.1.1.529 a variant of concern and gave it the name “Omicron” for the letter in the Greek alphabet.
Omicron has caused worldwide concern in recent days based on reports it may be more transmissible than Delta and could evade some protection offered by available vaccines. Scientists don’t yet have answers to these questions, but hope to know more in the coming days.
Here’s what’s happening across Canada and around the world today:
- CDC broadens its recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots to all adults aged 18 and up
- G7 health ministers pledge information sharing after emergency meeting; variant cases reported in Ontario, Quebec
- The WHO says Omicron poses a ‘very high’ risk
Where has Omicron been found around the world?
Outside South Africa, Omicron cases have been confirmed in a growing number of countries. Canada, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong are among those that have reported cases. Spain confirmed its first case Monday, in a traveller who arrived from South Africa.
Portuguese health authorities, meanwhile, have identified 13 cases of Omicron in members of a top soccer club, and are investigating possible local transmission of the variant. That would be the first reported instance of local transmission outside of southern Africa.
– The Canadian Press
CDC broadens recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots to all adults
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has broadened its recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots for all adults as the new Omicron variant is identified in more countries.
The agency had previously approved boosters for all adults, but only recommended them for those 50 years and older or if they live in a long-term care setting.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the new guidance reflects the emergence of the Omicron variant, which has not yet been identified in the U.S. but that officials say will inevitably reach the country.
“Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are 6 months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or 2 months after their initial J&J vaccine,” she said in a statement.
Walensky also encouraged Americans feeling unwell to seek out a COVID-19 test, saying “Increased testing will help us identify Omicron quickly.”
– The Associated Press
G7 health ministers agree to monitor Omicron closely, share information
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and his counterparts from other G7 countries agreed Monday to closely monitor and share information about the highly mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The new variant emerged in South Africa, coinciding with an increase in COVID-19 cases in the region.
Its appearance prompted border closures as well as screening measures in Canada and around the world.
Cases of the variant have been detected in Canada and officials have warned that more cases are likely to be found in the country in coming days.
The G7 health ministers met virtually to discuss the new threat, underscoring the importance of ensuring all countries have access to COVID-19 vaccines and the needed supports to get them into arms.
They also expressed strong backing for an international pathogen surveillance network within the WHO, said a joint statement issued after the meeting.
The ministers agreed to reconvene next month.
– The Canadian Press
Quebec reports first confirmed Omicron variant case
Quebec health officials have confirmed a case of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
Health Minister Christian Dubé made the announcement today at a news conference updating the province’s COVID-19 situation.
Dubé says 115 people who recently travelled to the province, principally from countries in southern Africa, have been asked to take a PCR test and to isolate.
He says experts are working to sequence the tests and to determine whether the variant is more contagious or more vaccine-resistant than previous strains.
Public health director Horacio Arruda said Quebec’s case also involves a person who recently travelled from Nigeria, but he did not say whether it was connected to the Ontario cases.
– The Canadian Press
Canada attends emergency G7 meeting on Omicron
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos attended an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers Monday to discuss the emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19. Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos attended an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers Monday to discuss the emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19.
A spokeswoman for Duclos said more information about the virtual G7 meeting will be released later Monday.
– The Canadian Press
WHO warns of ‘very high’ risk posed by Omicron variant
The World Health Organization warned Monday that global risks posed by the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus were “very high,” despite significant questions about the variant itself. Still, countries around the world rushed to defend against its spread with a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions that recalled the earliest days of the pandemic.
The WHO has urged national authorities to step up surveillance, testing and vaccinations, reinforcing the key findings that led its technical advisers Friday to label Omicron a “variant of concern.”
The agency warned that the variant’s “high number of mutations” – including up to 32 variations in the spike protein – meant that “there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences.”
Experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci have said that it could be two weeks or longer before more information about the variant’s transmissibility, and the severity of illness it causes, is available. So far, scientists believe that Omicron’s mutations could allow it to spread more easily than prior versions of the virus, but that existing vaccines are likely to offer protection from severe illness and death.
– New York Times wire service
Biden urges indoor masking, vaccination and say the new variant is ‘cause for concern, not a cause for panic’
President Joe Biden urged Americans on Monday not to panic about the new COVID-19 Omicron variant and said the United States was working with pharmaceutical companies to make contingency plans if new vaccines were needed.
Biden said the country would not go back to lockdowns to stop the spread of Omicron, and he would lay out his strategy on Thursday for combating the pandemic over the winter. He urged people to get vaccinated, get boosters and wear masks.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said in remarks at the White House following a meeting with his COVID-19 team.
“We’re going to fight and beat this new variant,” he said.
Biden said it was inevitable that Omicron cases, which were first detected in southern Africa, would emerge in the United States. He said officials were still studying Omicron but believed that existing vaccines would continue to protect against severe disease.
Biden said his administration was working with vaccine makers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans.
“In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,” he said.
Biden said he would direct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “use the fastest process available without cutting any corners for safety to get such vaccines approved and on the market if needed.”
A U.S. travel ban took effect earlier on Monday blocking most visitors from eight southern African nations from entering the country. Earlier flights from South Africa to the U.S. did not screen passengers after the variant was found.
Biden said the travel restrictions were put in place to give the country time to get more people vaccinated.
Countries rush to close borders
Many countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new Omicron variant at bay.
Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the U.S. and European Union members, have moved to prohibit travellers arriving from southern Africa.
COVID-19 infections showed the difficulty in keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders. Yet, many countries tried to do just that, even against the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods. Others argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant.
– The Associated Press
Omicron in Canada
The first two positive cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in Ontario after random testing at the Montreal airport when they first arrived in Canada and that four additional cases are being investigated, the province’s chief medical officer of health said. Dr. Kieran Moore called for mandatory testing for all travellers arriving in Canada to respond to the new threat.
There are two individuals in Ottawa and two in Hamilton are waiting results of whole genome sequencing to see in they have the Omicron variant, Dr. Moore said Monday. The province and federal government are working to contact a total of 375 people who arrived in the province in the past two weeks from seven African countries that have reported Omicron activity.