As an alarming new coronavirus variant emerges, Canada moves to limit travel from southern Africa
Those returning from the region will face quarantine and testing, says government
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced today that Canada will limit travel from seven countries in southern Africa, a region that has reported cases of a new — and possibly more infectious — coronavirus variant.
Starting today, 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.
Global Affairs Canada will also issue an advisory today warning against all travel to the region for the foreseeable future, Duclos said.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home — but they'll face a new requirement that could make travel awkward.
Because there are no direct flights between the region and Canada, most travellers transit through airports in Europe, the Middle East and the U.S.
Starting today, 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.
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And anyone who has arrived in Canada from southern Africa in the last 14 days must immediately get a COVID-19 test — even if they are asymptomatic. They're required to go home and quarantine while they wait for those results.
As nations close their airspace to flights from southern Africa, it may become more difficult to travellers leaving the region to transit through other countries.
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."
WATCH: Minister encourages Canadians stranded by travel restrictions on southern Africa to call for help
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said the new strain — dubbed the "omicron" variant by the World Health Organization (WHO) — has not yet been reported in Canada.
She said the omicron variant is notable because it has a large number of mutations, which may affect its transmissibility and the effect of COVID-19 vaccines.
"We're concerned about this new variant and closely monitoring the evolving situation," Tam told a briefing with reporters. "The challenges persist with this virus."
Tam said the new travel requirements are a prudent effort to keep the variant out, but it's likely cases of the omicron variant will emerge in Canada in the coming days.
"It is very difficult to keep a virus like this out entirely," she said.
Tam said vaccines are "still fundamentally the most important layer of protection" and unvaccinated Canadians should get their shots. Research is underway now to determine the efficacy of the current batch of vaccines against omicron, she said.
It's not unusual for a virus to mutate over time. The WHO brands a particular strain a variant of concern (VOC) when that mutation might affect factors like transmissibility, virulence or the effectiveness of vaccines.
While many questions remain, the U.K. Health Security Agency warned today that the new variant is the "most complex" and the "most worrying we've seen."
In a media statement, the WHO said today the number of cases of this variant, initially named B.1.1.529, appeared to be increasing in almost all of South Africa's provinces.
While COVID-19 case counts fell dramatically in that country in September and October after a delta-driven third wave, infections have since "increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant," the WHO said.
"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs."
Countries around the world already have restricted travel from some areas of the African continent in an effort to keep the newly identified coronavirus variant from crossing their borders.
Britain, Israel and Singapore, among others, have restricted travel from South Africa and some neighbouring countries. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is proposing member states pull the "emergency brake" on travel from some countries in Africa to limit the spread of the variant.
The <a href="https://twitter.com/EU_Commission?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@EU_Commission</a> will propose, in close coordination 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.—@vonderleyen
In question period Friday, Conservative MP Luc Berthold, the party's health critic, called for swift action to prevent the new variant from derailing Canada's progress in the fight against COVID-19.
"Canadians are worried," Berthold said. "The Liberal government has been slow, slow to warn Canadians, slow to close the borders, slow to provide vaccines. There's still time to protect Canadians who are fed up with lockdowns."
Associate Health Minister Carolyn Bennett said pre-departure PCR testing is in place and those tests "are capable of detecting this variant."
"The COVID-19 situation around the world continues to be volatile and unpredictable and we continue to monitor the situation very closely," she said.
WATCH | Associate Health Minister Carolyn Bennett discusses new measures on CBC's Power & Politics
Alghabra said the government wouldn't take lessons from the Conservatives on pandemic management when the party's leader, Erin O'Toole, refuses to require that all Conservative MPs get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Just last week, Alghabra said, the Conservatives were also calling for an end to pre-departure PCR testing and fewer travel restrictions.
"Forgive me for not taking advice from the Conservative Party," he said.
Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-disease official, said banning flights to the United States from southern Africa is a "possibility" but that a decision has not been made yet.
"There is always the possibility of doing what the U.K. has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries," Fauci said Friday morning in an interview on CNN.
"That's certainly something you think about and get prepared to do … But you want to make sure there's a basis for doing that."