What we know about Omicron, the new COVID variant that quickly led to the latest travel ban in Canada

South African health authorities have identified a new variant of the coronavirus following a spike in COVID-19 cases in Gauteng, South Africa.

For weeks the country was recording around 200 new cases a day, but on Thursday the number of new cases suddenly skyrocketed to 2,465. According to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response & Innovation in South Africa, 90 % of the 1,000 new cases detected through PCR testing on Wednesday in Gauteng were caused by the new variant.

This has led several countries, including the UK and now Canada and the US, to quickly implement travel restrictions. The federal government announced the decision at a press conference on Friday, implementing an immediate travel ban from seven different countries in the southern Africa region. There are reports that the United States is also planning to ban travel to southern African countries for non-US citizens from Monday.

The announcement came after Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole on Friday called for the implementation of travel bans. Members of the European Union have agreed to restrict all travel from seven countries in the Southern Africa region, although the new variant has already been detected in Belgium, which is an EU country.

According to laboratory reports, the case in Belgium concerns a young woman who developed symptoms 11 days after traveling to Egypt from Turkey. She did not claim to have any connection to South Africa or other countries in South Africa and she was not vaccinated.

What is Canada doing about the new Omicron variant?

At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced five different measures Canada is taking in hopes of preventing the spread of the new variant.

First, Canada is preparing to ban foreign nationals who have traveled to southern Africa in the past 14 days from entering Canada. The ban affects seven different countries in southern Africa, including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Anyone who has recently arrived in Canada from the region in the past 14 days should immediately self-quarantine, take a COVID test and remain in quarantine until they test negative. To implement this, the federal government will work with the provinces and territories.

Canadians, permanent residents and those with the right to enter Canada will be tested upon arrival. They will be quarantined until they test negative, only then will they be allowed to quarantine themselves elsewhere in a safe and proper manner. They are then tested again on the 8th day until they complete their quarantine period.

The federal government is issuing a travel advisory asking all Canadians not to travel to southern Africa at this time.

Finally, Canadians returning from this region and having to transit through another country will be required to take a test in that transit country and stay there until they test negative before being allowed to return home. The government adds that there are currently no direct flights from southern Africa.

“We are acting quickly to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” said Duclos.

What is the Omicron (B.1.1.529) and should we be concerned about it?

The new variant is called Omicron. The announcement was made by the World Health Organization following a meeting in Geneva. The new variant has been added to the WHO list of variants of concern.

Little is known about the new variant, but the World Health Organization (WHO) moved quickly to organize an emergency session in Geneva to discuss the emerging variant.

The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, de Oliveira said. The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19 and is also how mRNA and other vaccines help fight the virus.

There are less than 100 complete genomic sequences available, a research tool used to reveal the complete makeup of an organism’s DNA that helps scientists better understand diseases. WHO praised South Africa for promptly reporting the discovery of the new variant.

Scientists know the new variant is genetically distinct from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but aren’t sure if these genetic changes make it more heritable or dangerous.

“We don’t know much about it yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the problem is, when you have so many mutations, it can impact the behavior of the virus, ”said Maria van Kerkhove, epidemiologist and WHO technical officer on COVID-19.

But it’s something to watch out for, the organization warns.

Health experts are particularly concerned about its impact on diagnosis, treatment, and the effectiveness of current vaccines in combating the new variant.

“We have all indications that vaccines are still effective in preventing serious illnesses and / or complications,” South African officials said at a press conference on Friday.

Officials in that country said the ratio of those vaccinated to those unvaccinated was four to one.

“We think it’s more transmissible. We think it’s spread pretty widely already… and we’ll have more immunology and transmission work taken by the middle of next week, ”they added.

WHO recalls that the more the virus circulates, the more it is able to change and adapt and has assembled a team to monitor the variant and will work to determine whether it should be classified as a variant of interest (VOI) or as a variant. variant of concern (VOC). If it is designated as VOI or VOC, then only WHO will give it a Greek name.

The Delta variant is still by far the most transmissible form of COVID; it represents more than 99% of the sequences shared with the largest public database in the world.

Which countries have reported cases of B.1.1.529?

It is not known exactly where the new variant came from. It was first detected in South Africa, then identified later in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

How are countries reacting?

News of the emerging variant sent stock markets around the world tumbling. Oil prices fell below US $ 80 a barrel early in Friday trading. Investors rushed to the safety of bonds and so-called “home-based” companies like Zoom and Peloton, which made record gains during pandemic lockdowns and saw their trading rise. This is a complete reversal from earlier this month, when travel agencies and Airbnb showed signs of recovery as investors displayed optimism that the world will soon be opening up.

At least 10 countries, including Canada, have announced measures regarding the new variant of COVID-19.

At a press conference on Friday, South African officials called the ban on fast travel “unjustified” and wanted to reassure South Africans and the world community at large that the data is still new and ongoing. evaluation by medical experts. South African Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla said the disclosure of information by scientists in the country who discovered the new variant was in line with the norms and standards prescribed by the WHO, and that they have acted transparently and quickly. Phaahla goes on to say that other countries that are rapidly imposing travel bans and measures on South Africa are totally against the norms and standards set by the World Health Organization.

“Our immediate concern is the damage this decision will cause to both tourism industries and businesses in both countries,” South African Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor said.

“This uncertainty creates panic and unfortunately leads many countries to take precautionary and temporary measures by banning travel to South Africa and our region. It is a blow to our economy and it will be felt especially in our province, as our tourism and hospitality sector depends heavily on international travelers in this high season to maintain itself and create jobs, ”said the Minister. South African Prime Minister Alan Winde in a released statement. Friday.

WHO is also warning countries against hasty imposition of travel restrictions, urging them to take a “science-based and risk-based approach.”

In the past, governments have taken days, weeks and even months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variations. This time, the restrictions came hours after South Africa’s announcement.

When will we know more?

It will take a few weeks for us to understand the impact of this variant, the WHO said.

The organization has assembled a team of researchers who are coming together to understand where these mutations have been identified and what kind of impact it will have on current COVID-19 treatment measures.

Speak directly to the camera in a live session Posted Thursday, van Kerkhove said: “Each of you who is watching has a role to play in reducing transmission, as well as protecting against serious illness and death. So get vaccinated when you can, make sure you get all of your doses, and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing this virus on to someone else.

With files from The Associated Press.

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