'Only a matter of time' before omicron COVID-19 variant reaches Canada, expert says
TORONTO -- It's "only a matter of time" before cases of the new omicron COVID-19 variant are detected in Canada, according to the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Dr. William Schaffner says travel bans, such as the one implemented by Canada against southern states in Africa, can help delay the spread of the new strain but that it will eventually make its way around the globe.
"By that time, it's hopeful that we'll learn a lot more about these variants that will help us cope," he told CTV News Channel on Friday. "Anything that can dampen down introductions, slow the spread of this new variant around the world is important."
Right now, what medical experts do know about the strain is that it features a high number of mutations to the virus's spike protein and it appears to transmit more easily than the original COVID-19.
Fortunately, however, current testing methods are sufficient to detect it, which makes screening for the virus more important for countries than before.
"No border is completely porous-free. These things can travel, and that's a problem," Omar Khan, professor of biomedical engineering and immunology at the University of Toronto, told CTV News Channel on Friday. "It was recently detected, that does not mean it recently emerged. So that's the concern."
Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam stated Friday there are no indications of omicron's presence within the country.
If the new strain were in fact here, Khan says, Canada's high vaccination rate should offer Canadians good levels of protection. We'll know more about how well the COVID-19 vaccines work against omicron in the coming weeks.
"We have to understand that the current vaccines we have available were developed for the original type of coronavirus,” he said. “We were extremely fortunate that it worked for Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. Now, with omicron, time will tell if we will still have protection.
"It's a moving target. The vaccine stays the same and the virus is evolving. So that's the challenge."
But, in the meantime, while Canada and the rest of the world buys time to find a way to tackle the new variant by restricting borders, the price is being paid by those countries in the south of Africa where omicron was detected first, Schaffner says.
"Travel bans are things that are instinctive, you would think that they would keep the virus out, but they're very, very imperfect," he said. "They have the added unfortunate effect of penalizing, in effect, the countries that are so forward who have made the discovery and let everybody know about them."
The pandemic is a global event, Schaffner says, and finding ways to help developing nations will, in effect, help everyone.
"We, the countries of the world, have not yet figured out a way to make enough vaccine and get it distributed equitably in rapid fashion," he said.
"We in the developed world have two reasons for doing this. One is of course the simple humanitarian reason, we want to save as many lives as possible. But the other is those variants, they appear abroad, and then can come home to our countries. So, we have a self-interest in making sure that we end this pandemic around the world as quickly as possible."