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Travellers are directed to take a mandatory COVID-19 test after arriving on a international flight at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Feb. 1, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ottawa has halted direct passenger air traffic from India and Pakistan owing to growing concerns about COVID-19 variants after calls from provincial leaders to impose travel restrictions.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said on Thursday he is suspending all commercial and private passenger flights arriving from the two countries for the next 30 days. The measure took effect on Thursday evening, the same day India recorded the world’s highest daily count of COVID-19 infections: 314,835.

Public health experts are concerned about the escalating situation in India, and Pakistan is also struggling with COVID-19. Canada is in the midst of a severe and deadly third wave of the virus. A case of the B1617 variant that is central to India’s crisis was detected in Quebec this week, and Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said a case was confirmed in Alberta on Thursday.

‘Variant of interest’ vs. ‘variant of concern’: What’s the difference?

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has mutated into many new forms since the pandemic began. Some are more transmissible than the original virus, or more likely to reinfect people who recovered from it, but health officials don’t treat all variants as serious threats unless they meet certain criteria.

VARIANT OF INTEREST

  • Definition: To the World Health Organization, a variant of interest, or VOI, is simply a form of the virus that’s shown to have different physical properties than classic SARS-CoV-2, or have new genes that could make it so. The shape of viruses, in particular the protein spikes they use to bind to host cells, is important because a variant with different spikes could be better able to infect cells or resist antibodies. But until researchers can prove that a given variant does those things, it remains a VOI. When national health agencies find a new one, they have to share its gene sequence and case details with their local WHO office. The WHO then gives it a Greek letter designation.
  • Examples: Iota is a variant that emerged in New York in the fall of 2020. It showed some resistance to the antibody drugs used to treat severe COVID-19 cases, but WHO guidance says it’s unclear what clinical effect that really has.

VARIANT OF CONCERN

  • Definition: VOCs are types of VOI that have been confirmed as more transmissible or more resistant to existing public-health measures. The vaccines we have now, for instance, are still mostly effective against all forms of COVID-19, but non-medical masks and physical distancing can be less effective because, if the virus is more contagious, it would take a smaller amount of virus-carrying water droplets in the air to spread it from person to person.
  • Examples: The WHO’s list of VOCs so far includes the variants first identified in Britain (Alpha), South Africa (Beta), Brazil (Gamma), India (Delta), California (Epsilon) and Peru (Lambda). All have had documented cases in Canada, though Alpha is by far the most common type.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

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“This is a temporary measure while we assess the evolving situation and determine appropriate measures going forward,” Mr. Alghabra said.

The minister also said passengers who travel from India or Pakistan to Canada through an indirect route will need to obtain a negative COVID-19 test from the last country they were in before they arrive in Canada. Cargo flights will be allowed to continue to ensure an uninterrupted supply of vaccines, personal protective equipment and other essential goods, he added.

The federal government made the announcement after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced heightened political pressure to temporarily shut down international travel. Anxiety has been climbing over the variants.

Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease expert and clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, said data indicate variants have been brought to Canada on flights and across land borders. He noted that the B117 variant, first identified in Britain, remains the dominant variant in much of Canada.

Borders are a useful thing to have and make sure people feel protected, he said. But he added that it is more important to ensure that people who cross borders are appropriately monitored and protected.

“Focusing on the border is almost missing the forest for the trees,” he said. “It is part of the problem, but we still have lots of internal problems to solve.”

The variants are concerning, but their spread in Canada depends on how the country handles its own public health system rather than the borders, Dr. Murthy said.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said only 1.8 per cent of travellers are found to be positive with COVID-19, but it is important to reduce importation of the variants while provinces and territories struggle through the third wave.

She said India accounts for 20 per cent of recent air travel volume to Canada, but more than 50 per cent of all positive tests conducted at the border. Ms. Hajdu said a similarly high number of cases compared to travel rates have been linked to Pakistan.

“By eliminating direct travel from these countries, public health experts will have the time to evaluate the ongoing epidemiology of that region and to reassess the situation as this region works to reduce transmission and protect its people,” she said. “We will continue to apply stringent testing and quarantine measures for all passengers arriving in Canada.”

The federal government says all travellers entering Canada are subject to COVID-19 entry screening regardless of their country of origin or mode of entry. Anyone arriving at the border must isolate for 14 days if they have symptoms of COVID-19. They must also quarantine for 14 days if they do not have symptoms.

The agency also says travellers, unless specifically exempted, are required to demonstrate to a border services officer evidence of a valid test result. Foreign nationals without a valid molecular test or with symptoms of COVID-19 are not allowed entry to Canada. All travellers, whether arriving by land or air are also required to submit their travel and contact information, including a suitable quarantine plan before crossing the border or boarding a flight.

Before the ministers’ announcement, the House of Commons adopted a motion to suspend non-essential passenger flights from countries with high outbreak rates of COVID-19 variants.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault also wrote to Mr. Trudeau urging the federal government to reduce mobility of COVID-19 variants by further reducing coming international flights and to take additional protective actions at the Canada-U.S. land border.

“In the third wave, the spread of infection as a consequence of new variants of concern is increasing at an alarming rate. We are seeing a steady increase in positive cases despite the measures currently in place,” the premiers wrote.

“These new measures should be in place for as long as necessary, or until the risks of new variants presenting in Canada as a consequence of non-essential air and land travel has been effectively minimized.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole issued a statement on Thursday asking Mr. Trudeau to take action to secure Canada’s borders. Dozens of travellers who have COVID-19 have come to Canada, increasing the risk of new variants, including the one currently overwhelming India’s health care system, Mr. O’Toole said.

“Justin Trudeau has done next to nothing to keep dangerous variants from Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom out of Canada,” Mr. O’Toole said. “Canadians are being told not to go to work. Not to send their children to school. But hundreds of international flights continue to land in Canada each week. We have a small window of opportunity to act, and we must move now.”

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown called for Pearson International Airport to be closed.

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