The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Nov. 29
- Coronavirus tracker: Follow the pace of COVID-19 cases, vaccinations in Canada.
- Ontario, Quebec confirm omicron cases, monitoring about 500 other recent travellers.
- Existing vaccines likely to offer some protection against new variant, but producers are ready to prepare new versions.
- Tireless efforts from grassroots organizations have helped turn around what had been one of Canada's COVID-19 hotspots.
- Explore: Canada needs to make a tough call on boosters as new variant emerges.... LISTEN: Canadian journalist's travel nightmare as omicron news broke....Christmas tree shortage noted in Quebec.... COVID-19 means rethinking physical office spaces.
Quebec confirms an omicron infection, Ontario monitoring a handful of potential cases
The first case of the new omicron COVID-19 variant in Quebec has been confirmed, the provincial government there announced Monday.
Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda, speaking at a news conference, said tests revealed the new strain in a woman who had recently returned from Nigeria. On Sunday, Ontario confirmed two cases of the new variant called omicron in Ottawa, both of which were reported in people who had recently travelled to the province from Nigeria.
Arruda would not confirm whether the cases were related, while Health Minister Christian Dubé said that about 115 travellers from southern African countries have been asked to take a new COVID-19 test and to isolate.
Dubé cautioned that Canada could potentially impose stricter re-entry requirements for those travelling abroad, and asked Quebecers to reconsider any plans to travel this holiday season.
Canada on Friday announced that foreign nationals who had travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the previous 14 days would be barred from entering the country. Nigeria is several hours by plane from those southern Africa countries.
Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said Monday that four other cases were being monitored as potentially involving the variant — two in the Hamilton area and two more in Ottawa.
Moore said Hamilton's public health unit is "doing active case and tracing management," while Hamilton's public health unit said in a statement ahead of a planned news conference Monday that the two residents recently returned from travelling to South Africa and are self-isolating.
Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said separately there could be a rise in COVID-19 cases in that city linked to the variant, but that following public health measures already in place will help curb its spread.
"It is important to remember that this is not a new virus," she said.
Moore said public health units are also reaching out to 375 people who have returned from countries deemed by the federal government late last week to be high risk for the variant, and are offering them testing.
"We are investigating other cases, so I would not be surprised if we find more in Ontario because we've got a very robust surveillance system," Moore said.
The province is considering expanding booster shot eligibility in light of the development though Moore cautioned that "we need to understand if this is a virulent infection, if it makes people significantly sick or leads them to hospitalization.
The delta variant, Moore reminded the media on Monday, took three to four months to become the dominant strain.
Canada on Friday announced a suite of measures designed to shore up defences at border points in addition to the southern Africa travel ban.
Travellers must get a molecular test in the country they connect through on their way to Canada. Then, after landing in Canada, inbound travellers must also get an arrival test and wait for the results of that test at a designated hotel. If the test is negative, those returning travellers would be released to quarantine for a mandatory 14 days at home. They also would be required to go through a so-called "day eight" test on the eighth day of quarantine.
Federal Health Minister Jean Yves Duclos told a CBC News reporter Monday on Parliament Hill that the government would have "more to say very soon" regarding plans to deal with the variant.
From The National
New doses targeting omicron could take months to get to market, but protections are greater than when last variant took over
Japan said on Monday it would close its borders to foreigners, as the world's third-largest economy joined Israel in taking the toughest measures against the new coronavirus variant omicron.
"These are temporary, exceptional measures that we are taking for safety's sake until there is clearer information about the omicron variant," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.
That was the stance being taken Monday by U.S. President Joe Biden at a brief news conference and by his top coronavirus adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
"It buys you a couple of weeks because if you can keep things out in force for a couple of weeks you can do a lot of things," Fauci told CBS Mornings.
While the efficacy of travel bans is debatable — omicron has been detected in more than a dozen countries, with the original samples South Africa raised concern about were from mid-November — scientists are mobilizing as a result of the development.
Within a few weeks, researchers could have early answers on whether Omicron can evade protection from vaccines. Initial data will come from lab tests of blood samples from vaccinated people or lab animals, analyzing antibodies in the samples after exposure to the new variant.
David Ho, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University in New York, believes Omicron will show a substantial degree of resistance, based on the location of its mutations in the virus's spike protein.
"The vaccine antibodies target three regions on the coronavirus spike, and omicron has mutations in all three of those regions," said Ho. "We technical experts are much more worried than the public health experts because of what we know from the structural analysis" of omicron.
But Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London said it was "extremely unlikely" that current vaccines wouldn't work, noting they are effective against numerous other variants.
And it's important to note that at the beginning of the pandemic, health officials around the world including Fauci said that vaccines shown in trials to be at least 50 per cent effective in preventing serious illness and death would likely get the green light from regulators. The vaccines that have been put to use around the world have exceeded that benchmark to a significant degree.
Speaking to CBC's The National this weekend, Dr. Isaac Bogoch said that should omicron become a major virus strain, a likely scenario is a "gradual chipping away" of the effectiveness of the current vaccines.
"It would be extremely unusual for the vaccines to be rendered useless with a mutation, or even several mutations like this," said Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at University Health Network in Toronto.
Many parts of the developed world are starting from a much stronger foundation, in terms of vaccination rates, than when the delta variant took hold in the spring and summer. When delta was named a variant of concern, Canada was just beginning to give first shots to most adults while authorizing vaccines for those 12 to 17; now 79 per cent of the eligible population nationally is vaccinated.
Nevertheless, the chief executives from two companies that have produced mRNA vaccines used around the world, and most prominently in North America, say they are ready to adapt.
Pfizer could have a new vaccine against omicron Covid variant in less than 100 days, its CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC on Monday.
Bourla said work began Friday on preparing a new vaccine to adjust to the omicron variant mutations. Pfizer has worked with Germany's BioNTech on its COVID-9 vaccine.
"If there's a need for a new vaccine, we'll make almost four billion doses of the new vaccine next year," said Bourla.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told the same network it would be "months before the omicron specific variant is ready to ship in massive quantities."
How Brampton went from a COVID-19 hotspot to one of Canada's most vaccinated communities
Brampton, Ont., has accounted for about 70,000 of Peel Region's 120,000 COVID-19 cases through the course of the pandemic, despite having fewer people than the neighbouring city of Mississauga.
Situated near the country's largest airport, the region is home to many warehouses, logistical centres and the biggest Canada Post sorting facility, which have seen significant COVID-19 outbreaks.
A national COVID-19 hotspot for the first year of the pandemic spurred community and grassroots organizations like the Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force, the South Asian COVID-19 Task Force, the Latin American COVID-19 Task Force and the Black Health Task Force into action. The groups informed their respective communities about the virus, testing and vaccinations in languages that residents spoke, from sources they trusted.
"They were indefatigable.... They were going door-to-door setting up bookings and transportation networks to get people to go to clinics, working with us to set up mobile clinics," said Peel Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lawrence Loh.
In November of last year, when daily cases in Brampton were at their highest, Dr. Raj Grewal co-founded the South Asian COVID-19 Task Force with other physicians to combat not only misinformation but also false perceptions.
"We had our community disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and the media was saying the South Asians aren't listening to the rules, they're not observing lockdown and all these things," he said. "We wanted to clear those misconceptions and educate our community."
Out of their efforts came a testing centre and vaccination clinic run by physicians and nurses who spoke familiar languages like Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, and others, located at the Embassy Grand Convention Centre in Brampton, which has now become one of the largest testing centres and vaccine clinics in the province.
The task force also worked with Peel Region public health officials, with ethnic media, local Punjabi and Hindi language TV channels and even WhatsApp to disseminate information about COVID-19, testing, and vaccinations targeting a South Asian audience.
As of last week, 86 per cent of residents 12 and older in Peel Region are fully vaccinated, and 90 per cent of residents 12 and older have had a first shot. The region now sees an average of 40 cases per day. This time last year, that number was more than 10 times higher.
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With files from Reuters, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press