A new highly transmissible COVID-19 variant that was first detected in South Africa has prompted Canada to instate a travel ban and raised concerns that it may result in a spike in cases locally.
The new variant, dubbed Omicron, first emerged in South Africa and coincided with a steep rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in that region in recent weeks, according to the World Health Organization.
The Canadian travel ban, announced Friday (Nov. 26), will apply to foreign nationals who transited through a list of seven countries in the last 14 days, including South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Namibia and Eswatini.
Canadians who are already home but recently travelled through the region will need to quarantine, and be tested for COVID-19.
Global Affairs is also issuing an advisory to discourage non-essential travel to South Africa and neighbouring countries.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents arriving home from the region must get a COVID-19 test before they return, and will need to quarantine at a designated hotel until their entry test proves negative. After that, they will be able to isolate at home until they test negative 10 days after arrival.
What threat does Omicron pose in B.C.?
So far, there have been no cases of the Omicron variant detected in Canada.
But Dr. Jeffrey Joy, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC), told Vancouver Is Awesome that it is unlikely the travel ban will prevent the new variant from appearing in B.C.
"Travel measures will buy us some time to prepare, and that is very important, but such measures are unlikely to prevent its eventual arrival on our shores," he said.
And once the variant is detected locally, Joy notes that it will likely spread rapidly. "In South Africa, it is spreading much faster than the Delta variant and it is likely to have a similar rate of spread here in British Columbia."
Joy told V.I.A. in June that he wholeheartedly agreed with comments made by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States' top infectious disease expert regarding the Delta variant. Fauci had remarked that "the Delta variant is currently the greatest threat in the U.S. in our attempt to eliminate COVID-19."
In terms of transmissibility, Joy had underscored that the Delta variant is significantly more transmissible than other strains. If the Alpha variant (originally discovered in the U.K), for example, is approximately 50 per cent more transmissible than the original strain discovered in Wuhan, then the Delta variant is close to twice that amount.
Since then, Delta has become the predominant strain in B.C. and around the world, representing the vast majority of cases.
Now, Joy stresses that the Omicron variant may pose an even greater risk.
"This variant is different because it is simultaneously much more transmissible than any other variant so far and also has a host of mutations which make it more immune evasive," he explained.
"We don't know for sure its degree of vaccine resistance or how effective the vaccines are going to be yet, what we do know is that it has many key mutations that facilitate evasion of immunity.
"Some of these mutations are associated with resistance to neutralizing antibodies and evasion of innate immunity."
Since much is still unknown about Omicron, Joy underscores that it is still "a bit too early" to say how much of a threat it poses. For one, he notes that "we still don't know basic things about this variant. For example, if it causes more severe disease or not."
Regardless, the fact that it is significantly "more transmissible means that the number of cases would likely be much higher."
B.C. health officials respond to Omicron threat
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix announced their support for the federal travel ban in a statement released Friday afternoon. They note that the precautionary measure is "prudent" but emphasize that there has been no evidence that the new variant has been introduced into B.C.
"The BC Centre for Disease Control's public health lab has sequenced over 90,000 virus isolates in B.C. and will continue to use whole genome sequencing to monitor for all variants circulating in B.C., including this new VOC Omicron," reads the statement.
"In addition, public health will be working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Canada Border Services Agency to identify any people recently returned from the areas of concern to arrange testing and to ensure they remain well."
Earlier this month, health officials announced that the first cases of the Delta variant strain AY.4.2 were detected in B.C. The first cases were detected in the Fraser Health Region and health officials are doing contact tracing to see where the individuals might have acquired it.
While health officials In Europe haven't noticed that the strain causes reduced effectiveness against vaccines, Henry noted that they have seen "slightly increased transmissibility."
With files from the Canadian Press