The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Nov. 26
- Coronavirus tracker: Follow the pace of COVID-19 cases, vaccinations in Canada.
- Federal government enacts heightened travel restrictions, says new variant omicron not yet detected in Canada.
- Next few weeks to be critical in assessing new variant's transmissibility, severity and evasiveness.
- South Africa feels it's being punished for early detection of variant.
- Gloomy day on the markets though shares of vaccine makers, Zoom and Peloton rise.
Canada moves to limit travel from southern Africa in light of new variant detection
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced Friday that Canada will limit travel from seven countries in southern Africa, a region that has reported cases of a new — and possibly more infectious — COVID-19 variant now called omicron.
All foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days will be barred from entering Canada effective immediately.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home — but they'll face requirements that could make travel awkward, which are detailed here.
Asked if the government would help those who may become stranded, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Canadians have been warned about the risk of travelling during a global pandemic for nearly two years.
"We've been asking them to pay close attention to travel measures, to border restrictions," he said. "But if any individual, any Canadian citizen, is having a hard time figuring out how to get back home, I encourage them to call the emergency watch centre to speak with an official. They will try and work with them to figure out how to get them home safely."
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said that omicron has not yet been detected in Canada, but health officials at a briefing in Ottawa couldn't rule out the possibility, and it has been shown in the pandemic that the level of sequencing has varied across the country.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and Ontario Premier Doug Ford called on the federal government to act on the border given the variant development. "
With reports of the spread of a new COVID-19 variant, we have a small window of opportunity to act, and we must move now," said O'Toole.
The government stressed that there are no direct flights to or from the southernmost part of Africa and Canada currently, although people can connect in between to other airports, particularly in Europe.
Perhaps the government's action will mollify opposition parties and the premiers whose provinces have international airports, but some health experts CBC News spoke to Friday were less impressed.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch said border closures may slow down the spread "but are largely performative in nature."
"We know people can circumvent these travel restrictions ... we've seen this happen time and time again throughout this pandemic [with other variants]," said Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at University Health Network in Toronto.
Added Dr. Prabhat Jha, epidemiologist from the University of Toronto: "I for one think it's premature to have a travel ban when we don't have enough evidence."
South African officials stressed that while they detected the unique sequencing and mutations of the variant, it's not clear where the variant originated.
Health experts in Canada, South Africa and elsewhere urged people to exercise prudence by distancing, masking up in confined spaces and getting vaccinated if they hadn't already done so.
From The National
What we know and don't know about omicron, the new COVID-19 variant
Omicron became the fifth official variant of concern after the World Health Organization's technical group met Friday.
Variants rise to the level of concern when there's evidence that increased transmission or increased severity of disease may be happening, or that public health measures, vaccination or treatments may have decreased effectiveness against it.
"What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations," said the WHO's Maria Van Kerkhove. "It will take a few weeks to understand what impact this variant has."
South Africa's daily infection rate nearly doubled on Thursday to 2,465. South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) did not attribute the resurgence to the new variant, although local scientists suspect it may be the cause.
Events moved quickly as South African scientists doing genomic sequencing detected the new variant — technically called B.1.1.529 — on Tuesday, in samples from Nov. 14-16. On Wednesday, South African scientists sequenced more genomes, informed the government that they were concerned and alerted the World Health Organization.
The country has identified around 100 cases of the variant, saying they're concentrated in the most populated province Gauteng, but now likely to be found in some of the country's other eight provinces.
Officials stressed that within that small sample, the ratio of cases was four unvaccinated persons for every vaccinated one, although it should be pointed out the country's vaccination rate is far off the pace of North America and western Europe.
Nearby Botswana detected four cases, Hong Kong has one case, in a traveller from South Africa, and Israel has one in a traveller returning from Malawi.
The other four variants of concerns from SARS-CoV-2 have been alpha, beta, gamma and delta, the last of which wreaked havoc in several parts of the world due to its increased transmissibility. U.K. health officials said it appears this variant has 30 mutations of the spike protein that viruses use to get into human cells, about double the number of delta.
U.K. Health Security Agency chief medical adviser Dr. Susan Hopkins told BBC radio some mutations had not been seen before, so it was not known how they would interact with the other ones, making it the most complex variant seen so far.
"The key things that now need to be done is to test whether the existing vaccines generate responses against the variant," epidemiologist Dr. Prabhat Jha from the University of Toronto told CBC News.
More tests will also be needed to confirm if it's more transmissible and severe in its infectiousness.
Mutations can lead to transmissibility or vaccine evasion but how they behave in "real-world settings" can be different, said Toronto-based infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch.
No unusual symptoms have been reported following infection with the B.1.1.529 variant and, as with other variants, some individuals are asymptomatic, South Africa's NICD said.
South Africa considers travel bans affecting their region unfair, ironic
As news of a concerning new variant landed with impact beginning late Thursday, World Health Organization emergency director Mike Ryan said it was "important that there are no knee-jerk responses here, especially with relation to South Africa."
Canada, and much of the world, did not pay heed. As news travelled across time zones, flight restrictions to and from southern Africa first picked up steam in Europe.
"The commission will propose, in close co-ordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529," EU Commission chief Urusla von der Leyen tweeted early Friday.
Britain, no longer part of the EU, temporarily banned flights from the same countries Canada ultimately did hours later. It also asked Britons from those destinations to quarantine.
South Africa reacted strongly to the travel bans in a briefing Friday, calling them unjustified and, in the words of its health minister, "completely against the norms and standards of guidance by the World Health Organization."
Health Minister Dr. Joe Phaahla deemed the moves "draconian." Without naming specific countries, but undoubtedly thinking of Europe, Phaahla said he considered it ironic that given his country's caseload is now relatively low, bans were coming from parts of the world where several countries are grappling with significant fourth waves and renewed restrictions.
"We must work together instead of punishing each other," said Phaahla.
He was among a number of South African health officials at a briefing who pointed out countries may be reluctant to advise the international community of concerning variants and mutations in the future if they're going to be, in effect, quarantined. The officials also stressed that while they detected the variant later named omicron by WHO, it is not clear where the variant originated.
Seth Berkely, the CEO of GAVI, was among those sounding the alarm over vaccine inequity in light of the development, as soft spots of undervaccinated populations can be where virus mutations can take root.
"We've been saying from the start that concentrating vaccines in wealthy countries puts us all at risk of new variants emerging. This needs to be a wake-up call: we need global vaccine equity, now!" Berkley said on Twitter.
The fully vaccinated rate globally is about 42 per cent, but it belies great disparity. Portugal, Cuba and the Emirates have vaccinated about 90 per cent of their populations, Canada and Japan are around 76 per cent, but very populous countries such as Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria are below 25 per cent, some considerably. (See graph further below in this newsletter)
"This is why we talked about the risk of vaccine apartheid. This virus can evolve in the absence of adequate levels of vaccination. It's upsetting that it takes this to happen to get the point across," Richard Lessells, a South Africa-based infectious disease expert involved in detecting variants, told Reuters.
Multiple reports this week have pointed out it's not as simple as ramping up supply to Africa, which has happened recently. As with other parts of the world, there is vaccine hesitancy, distrust of governments, as well as other factors specific to Africa, including a taxed health-care system that often deals with several infectious diseases concurrently.
Rational or not, markets have plenty to say about new variant
Global stock markets and oil prices tumbled Friday given the detection of the new coronavirus variant and the moves to suspend flights in the beleaguered air travel industry.
Canada's main stock index was down nearly 500 points as the price of oil fell more than 10 per cent and U.S. stock markets tumbled lower amid worries about the new COVID-19 variant of concern. The S&P/TSX composite index was down 495.78 points at 21,117.40 as of this writing.
In New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly fell more than 1,000 points before closing down 905.04 points at 34,899.34 in the typically shortened trading day following the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday. Investors were uncertain whether the variant could potentially reverse months of progress at getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control.
The S&P 500 index dropped 106.84 points, or 2.3 per cent, to close at 4,594.62.
It was the worst day for Wall Street's benchmark index since February. The index was dragged lower by everything from banks, travel companies and energy companies as investors tried to reposition to protect themselves financially from the new variant.
Lisa Kramer, a professor of finance at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, says investors are reacting with a fear similar to what happened at the start of the pandemic.
"It isn't uncommon when we have dramatic news come out for some people to overreact," she said in an interview with CBC News. "And it doesn't take a lot of people panicking for markets to react strongly."
One sign of Wall Street's anxiety was the VIX, the market's measurement of volatility that is sometimes referred to as its "fear gauge." The VIX jumped 53.6 per cent to a reading of 28.54, its highest reading since January before the vaccines began to be widely distributed.
"These announcements have sparked a sell-off in travel-related stocks [airlines, cruise lines, hotels etc.] and has sparked a rally in stay-at-home and vaccine stocks," said Colin Cieszynski with SIA Wealth Management in Toronto.
Air Canada, cruise line Carnival and hotel chains Hilton and Marriott were among those down.
Investors are worried that the supply chain issues that have impacted global markets for months will worsen. Ports and freight yards are vulnerable and could be shut by new, localized outbreaks.
"Supply chains are already stretched," said Neil Shearing, an economist with Capital Economics in London, told The Associated Press. "A new, more dangerous, virus wave could cause some workers to temporarily exit the workforce, and deter others from returning, making current labour shortages worse."
There were gainers, as investors moved money into companies that largely benefited from previous waves, like Zoom Communications for meetings or Peloton for at-home exercise equipment. Shares in both companies rose nearly six per cent.
The coronavirus vaccine manufacturers were among the biggest beneficiaries of the emergence of this new variant and the subsequent investor reaction. Pfizer shares rose more than six per cent while Moderna shares jumped more than 20 per cent.
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With files from Reuters, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press