It’s inevitable the new Omicron COVID-19 variant will make its way to Alberta despite federal travel restrictions, a local infectious-disease expert says.
The projection comes as African Calgarians grapple with holiday travel plans to their home countries. The Omicron variant was discovered in South Africa, prompting a federal government travel ban there and to neighbouring nations.
“The little data we’ve seen in terms of how this variant has been able to rapidly displace Delta, which in itself is much more readily and rapidly transmitted (than previously circulating strains), suggests this particular variant is very well-adapted to efficient transmission,” said Dr. Ilan Schwartz at the University of Alberta.
“So I think that it is inevitable that this variant is going to be in Alberta, but there’s still a lot that we don’t know.”
Canada tallied its first two known cases of the Omicron variant Sunday, both detected in the Ottawa area in people who had recently returned from Nigeria.
Information on the variant is still scarce after the World Health Organization named it and designated the strain a variant of concern Friday.
An update from the international public health body Sunday said it remains unknown whether Omicron is more transmissible or causes more severe disease than Delta, but that initial cases tended to affect younger individuals who had more mild disease. The WHO said early evidence suggests there may be a higher risk of reinfection with Omicron, but that current vaccines are thought to remain effective against severe illness.
University of Manitoba virologist Dr. Jason Kindrachuk said it takes time for researchers to determine characteristics of new virus strains.
“It’s tough to be hearing about a new variant that’s circulating, particularly one that’s now a variant of concern, and also hear that we don’t fully understand it yet,” Kindrachuk said.
“We will understand it very quickly but there’s going to be a bit of a time lag. It’s emerged, we’re identifying it in various countries as the hours tick by, which is good because it means people are surveying for it. We’re going to continue to pick up cases. We have to figure out where it’s going to and where it’s been and how it’s behaving in that way, and get back to discussions about what we’ve learned in the past two years on how we can mitigate virus spread.”
Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw addressed the new variant in a Twitter thread on Sunday, saying the province is monitoring developments but said no cases have been detected in the province. She said public health officials have contacted people who have returned from affected countries in the past 14 days, and the province is developing a plan to deal with any future travel-related cases of the variant.
I am also working with @AHS_media on a proactive plan to manage any future travel-related and Omicron cases here in Alberta. To be clear, there are no confirmed cases in our province. (4/7)
— Dr. Deena Hinshaw (@CMOH_Alberta) November 28, 2021
“I want to reassure Albertans that our genetic sequencing program here in Alberta can detect mutations of the virus, including this new strain,” Hinshaw previously said on Twitter on Friday.
News of the variant has caused confusion and panic among Calgary’s African population, according to Charles Odame-Ankrah with the Calgary African Community Collective.
The community leader said Omicron is complicating travel plans for some Calgarians who were planning overseas visits home over the holiday season for the first time since before the pandemic began.
“The question for people is, ‘Do I go, and if it gets worse and there’s a lockdown, do I get stuck?’ ” he said. “It’s been tough, especially for people who have lost loved ones, who have lost their parents and were not there to say their goodbyes.”
Odame-Ankrah said he would like to see preventive measures put in place in Canada to stop the spread of Omicron among travellers, such as isolation hotels, rather than a blanket ban on travel. The federal ban introduced Friday restricts the entry of foreigners from South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini into Canada, and requires quarantining for any returning Canadians who have entered those countries over the past 14 days.
Banning travel from countries that identify new variants of concern is a knee-jerk decision that could have negative long-term implications, Schwartz said, potentially dissuading countries from reporting variant discoveries in the future.
He said while there is political pressure to act quickly when a new variant emerges, it’s important to balance those decisions with the reality that Omicron has been detected in numerous countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom.
“The reality is, the horse has bolted. This variant is likely in many places around the world. The excellence and the transparency of South African and Botswanian scientists is being selectively punished, and that at the end of the day doesn’t make us any safer,” Schwartz said.
Both Schwartz and Kindrachuk agreed efforts to boost global vaccine equity will be vital in preventing future variants and bringing the pandemic to a close.
“The more the virus is able to transmit through communities in general, the more we will have an opportunity for the virus to mutate in such a way that it gains additional behaviours that we don’t want to see,” Kindrachuk said.
“There are areas of the world right now that certainly have not seen equity in regards to vaccine distribution or health-care infrastructure that can’t take an onslaught of cases . . . Globally, if we want to be more prepared, we have to appreciate that.”
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