'Wouldn't be a surprise' if omicron variant already in Canada, says WHO official

Dr. Peter Singer, special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization, says it's possible the omicron variant has already spread to other countries, including Canada, despite recently imposed travel restrictions.

Public health measures, global vaccination campaign key to fighting pandemic, says Dr. Peter Singer

Passengers line up to get on an Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Friday. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

A special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization says it "wouldn't be a surprise" if there were cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in Canada.

"It's very possible that it's in any country, and the harder one looks, the more likely one is to find [it], so it wouldn't be a surprise," Dr. Peter Singer said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live that aired Sunday.

The Canadian doctor told guest host David Cochrane that much was still unknown about the new variant, dubbed omicron by the WHO and which was first identified by researchers in South Africa. Cases have also been detected in the Netherlands, the U.K., Germany and Australia, among other countries.

"What we know is that it's got a lot of mutations, and it can change the epidemiology.... What we don't know is its effect on transmissibility, its effect on how severe the clinical disease is and its effect on the effectiveness of vaccines," he said.

Singer noted that the foremost things Canadians can do to protect themselves are the same as they have been throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: get vaccinated and follow public health measures.

WATCH | Adviser to WHO head says omicron variant may have already reached Canada: 

'Wouldn't be a surprise' if omicron variant already in Canada, says WHO official

7 months ago
Duration 8:07
Dr. Peter Singer, special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization, joins Rosemary Barton Live to discuss how concerned countries around the world, including Canada, should be about the new omicron variant.

"This is a call for individuals to raise their guard. There are things individuals can do which help with any variant or any version of this virus, including omicron."

The WHO released a statement on Sunday summarizing what it knows about the virus. It said it was studying whether the variant was more transmissible than those currently spreading, such as delta, as well as whether omicron increased the risk of reinfection, as suggested by "preliminary evidence."

Travel bans not 'silver bullet'

Many countries around the world, including Canada, imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa over the past several days, prompted by concerns around the variant. As of Friday, all foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the preceding 14 days will be barred from entering Canada.

Israel has gone so far as to ban all foreigners from entering the country.

Singer said the WHO has maintained that travel restrictions should be "risk-based and time-limited," part of a comprehensive package, rather than the only measure taken to mitigate the risk of a new variant.

"They're definitely not a silver bullet," he said.

Singer added that it was important the world react in ways that incentivize countries to be transparent about the appearance of new variants, not punish them.

Dr. Peter Singer, a Canadian, is special adviser to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization. (Submitted by Dr. Peter Singer)

South Africa's health minister recently called the travel restrictions "unjustified." There has been long-standing debate over whether travel bans are an effective tool at slowing the spread of COVID-19, with many arguing that they are most often implemented too late and their effectiveness quickly waned.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa, said instituting travel bans targeted at southern Africa "attacks global solidarity."

"COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions," Moeti said.

Singer said the best thing to do to fight omicron and other potential variants is to boost the global vaccination campaign.

"I don't know how plainly I can say this. Of course, this is an act of justice, but principally it's an act of protecting Canadians," he said.

Canada has pledged to donate the equivalent of at least 200 million vaccine doses through the COVAX facility by the end of next year, though only a fraction of those doses have been delivered to date. Singer said 550 million doses are needed before the end of the year to reach a goal of 40 per cent of the population in every country vaccinated.

Vaccination rates remain low in South Africa and across the continent as a whole, Singer said, and while there are some concerns about hesitancy, supply has been the most acute issue.

"This is a wake-up call to vaccinate the world, and frankly, we've had a lot of wake-up calls and we should stop sleeping through the alarm."

You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.

With files from David Cochrane, Brennan MacDonald and The Associated Press


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