Ottawa has announced new measures to stem the spread of the Omicron variant in Canada, expanding a travel ban to include foreign nationals from Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt and adding testing requirements for travellers returning to Canada from anywhere in the world except the United States.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Tuesday that the three African countries – which have been added to a list of seven in southern Africa where the variant has been detected – have difficulty measuring what is happening within their borders. But he explained that the decision has more to do with travellers who transit through them, not the citizens of those countries.
Mr. Duclos said vaccinated international air travellers arriving from countries other than the U.S. will need to be tested at the airport and will have to self-isolate until they receive a negative test result. Unvaccinated travellers will have to quarantine for 14 days, as was previously the case. They will continue to be tested upon arrival and on day eight.
Mr. Duclos also said the government is asking the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to provide guidance on whether Canada should revise national standards, attitudes and actions on the use of booster shots in light of the new variant.
Like much of the world, Canada is considering the next steps in its response to Omicron.
In remarks to the House of Commons Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not specifically address measures to contain the new variant, though he acknowledged that the pandemic is going through new phases. He began his remarks just before the announcement by members of his cabinet of the new border restrictions. He said future efforts to combat the pandemic will include enhanced border measures to address variants of concern, securing booster shots and doses for children and looking to the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as developing new vaccines in Canada.
There are now seven cases in Canada, including four in Ontario and one in Quebec, and both Alberta and B.C. confirmed their first cases Tuesday.
Mr. Duclos said the new variant may be found to be less of a concern than some experts fear, but the situation may also evolve differently.
“We’re reminding Canadians that travel rules and border rules in particular can always change,” he said.
The new variant comes with several unknowns, such as how transmissible it may be. Public-health experts say they will be monitoring the situation closely for the next few weeks to gather more information. Scientists have expressed concerns about Omicron because it has a large number of mutations, including many on the spike protein, which some fear could make it more transmissible or better able to evade vaccines.
The World Health Organization says the risk of further spread is high and could have severe consequences for some countries, particularly those with relatively low vaccination rates. Omicron has now appeared in at least 16 countries.
The infected individual in Alberta travelled from Nigeria and the Netherlands about a week ago, according to the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw.
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Tuesday that the case in her province was an individual who recently travelled to Nigeria. She said there is no sign yet of community spread of the new variant in the province but warned that prudent action must be taken in the next few weeks.
“Here in B.C., we are fortunate that we already have many protective measures in place, but we must anticipate and plan for the worst,” she said.
Dr. Henry also said it is inevitable that more cases will be confirmed in the province.
On Friday, the federal government announced restrictions on travel from seven countries in southern Africa, banning all foreign nationals who had travelled there in the past 14 days. The announcement followed the WHO’s designation of Omicron as a variant of concern.
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Tuesday that the three countries added to the travel ban list did not report cases of the variant prior to other countries reporting importations from them. She said this underscores possible uncertainty in the overall epidemiological situation in those three countries – specifically, their ability to detect and respond to cases. Those countries also have very low vaccination rates, she added.
Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that, rather than travel bans, a more effective, science-based approach would involve enhanced testing and quarantine measures.
Specific bans targeting travellers from certain countries do not appear to be an effective strategy to keep people safe, Mr. Singh added.
“If it doesn’t work, why are we doing it?” he said.
He also said Canada needs to push for a waiver on vaccine patent protections to get jabs into the arms of the world’s poorer citizens, adding that the interests of big pharmaceutical companies should not be prioritized.
With files from Carrie Tait in Calgary, Xiao Xu in Vancouver, Carly Weeks in Toronto and Ian Bailey in Ottawa
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