Canada is banning entry to foreign nationals who have travelled to southern Africa to prevent the spread of a new variant of concern discovered in the region.
The countries the ban applies to are South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Namibia.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said in a press conference on Nov. 26 that individuals who have arrived from these countries in the last 14 days will be asked to take a COVID-19 test and to quarantine until they receive a negative result.
Also, Canadian citizens, permanent residents, or those with a valid visa coming from the region will be tested on arrival and have to quarantine in a hotel until receiving a negative result. They will then be able to complete their self-isolation at home.
The latest measures are expected to remain in effect until Jan. 31.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said there are no direct flights to Canada from the concerned region, and individuals travelling with a layover will be required to be tested in the third country.
Global Affairs Canada will also issue an advisory to discourage non-essential travel to southern Africa.
The World Health Organization (WHO) wrote in a statement on Nov. 26 that “in recent weeks, infections have increased steeply in South Africa, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant.”
B.1.1.529 has been deemed a variant of concern by the WHO and given the name Omicron.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said in the press conference the variant hasn’t yet been detected in Canada.
“Although the epidemiological significance of this variant is still being assessed, it is considered unusual in that as a very high number of mutations in two key areas of the viruses spike protein,” said Tam.
Since this could increase transmissibility as well as decrease the body’s defences, “we are concerned about this new variant and closely monitoring the evolving situation,” she said.
A number of other jurisdictions have also enacted restrictions on travellers from the region.
Israel banned arrivals from most African countries on Nov. 26. “We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency,” said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
The United States will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region starting Nov. 29.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said the Commission would propose “to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.”
The WHO cautioned against a “knee-jerk” reaction following a meeting of its experts in Geneva on Nov. 26.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing in Geneva. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”
Lindmeier said it will take several weeks to assess the new variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics against it.
The chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, criticized the travel restrictions imposed on her country, describing them as “hasty” and “a storm in a teacup,” reported PA Media.
“From us as medical practitioners, we picked up, last week, the different clinical pictures, we looked at the advisory committees and so far what we have seen is very mild cases. [I’m] not sure why we are all up in arms,” Coetzee said.
“We know there are a lot of mutations, but no-one can tell us at this stage if it means something or if it is just going to fade away. We just don’t know.”
Fears that the new variant could evade vaccines and lead to more restrictive measures sparked a panic in political circles as well in the economy, with markets crashing on Nov. 26.
With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters