Omicron variant: Travel bans must be backed up by 'data driven' testing, expert says
BARRIE -- Travel bans implemented on seven southern African countries in a bid to keep the new omicron COVID-19 variant out of Canada must be backed up with more stringent testing and tracing at the border, according to an expert in the field.
Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist in Saskatoon, told CTV News Channel that the travel bans implemented on Friday should include “very, very careful and very comprehensive screening at the border of travellers coming into the country.”
“I really think that’s what we need to focus on,” he said. “Testing, tracing [and] if needed, isolating our travellers more than any kind of carte blanche in our travel bans.”
“Those are very crude, sledgehammer-types of measures,” he continued, “And I think we need a little bit sharper, more data driven measures like testing, tracing in place.”
Mihajarine’s remarks come as Canada confirmed its first two cases of the B.1.1.529 -- or omicron variant -- in Ontario.
In a statement Sunday evening, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Dr. Kieran Moore, chief medical officer of health, said both cases of the omicron variant were detected in Ottawa.
“Both of which were reported in individuals with recent travel from Nigeria,” the statement reads. “Ottawa Public Health is conducting case and contact management and the patients are in isolation.”
Canada’s Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said as monitoring and testing continues across the country, “it is expected that other cases of this variant will be found in Canada.”
“I know that this new variant may seem concerning, but I want to remind Canadians that vaccination, in combination with public health and individual protective measures, is working to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and its variants in our communities,” Duclos said in a statement Sunday.
On Friday, officials announced a travel ban barring foreign travellers from seven southern African countries from entering Canada.
Border measures have been tightened on anyone who has travelled to South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia.
Officials are also asking anyone who had travelled to one of the countries in the last 14 days, who is now in Canada, to get a COVID-19 test and isolate.
Canadians or other permanent residents seeking re-entry must also quarantine for 14 days and undergo enhanced screening and testing.
Global Affairs Canada also issued a travel advisory, urging Canadians not to travel to the region.
Canada is just one of several countries, including the U.S., Britain and the European Union, that have implemented more stringent travel rules over fears of the omicron variant.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, said the omicron variant is “unusual” because it has a high number of mutations.
“Due to the potential for increased transmissibility and the possibility of increased resistance to vaccine induced protection, we’re concerned about this new variant and are closely monitoring the evolving situation,” she told reporters.
Tam said laboratories across the country have been “alerted” to the new variant, but conceded it would be “very difficult” to keep the omicron variant from reaching Canada.
Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, told The Canadian Press that the “blind closures” don’t make scientific sense, adding that the variant may have been first detected in South Africa because they have good genomic surveillance infrastructure.
“This has likely been circulating for some time,” he told the outlet. “It really doesn’t make sense that we use rigid travel bans as a way of preventing cases, as compared to mitigating spread.”
Chagla said this underscores the urgent need for a united, global effort to increase access to vaccines around the world.
He said Canada should evaluate whether it should import more vaccines for boosters for low-risk populations, or if it should work on getting vaccines to countries in need.
"If we're going to repeat the same mistakes this time, and keep re-vaccinating our lowest risk populations and forget about our global duties, I'm pretty sure we're going to see this scenario playing itself out over and over and over again,” he said.
VERY EARLY DAYS
The World Health Organization (WHO) designated omicron a ‘variant of concern’ on Friday.
On Sunday, the WHO said it was not yet clear whether the variant, which was first reported in South Africa, is more transmissible than other variants, or whether it causes more severe disease.
“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection,” the WHO said.
Muhajarine echoed this, saying we are in the “very early days” of studying the variant.
“I think scientists, lab scientists are really getting going in doing experiments to find out how transmissible, and particularly whether this variant will have an advantage in evading, to some extent vaccine induced antibody immunity, that first line of defence that vaccines and the body produces in blocking the variants from getting into cells,” he said.
With files from The Canadian Press