The Government of Canada has introduced new travel measures to address a new variant of concern that has been detected in South Africa.
The variant, identified as B.1.1.529, is named Omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO) and has also been detected in other countries.
At this time, the variant has not been detected in Canada, the Government of Canada stated on its website.
On Friday (Nov. 26), Canada’s Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, and Minister of Health, Jean-Yves Duclos, unveiled new health and safety border measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.
As a “precautionary measure,” until Jan. 31, 2022, Ottawa is implementing enhanced measures for all travellers who have been in the Southern Africa region — including South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia— within the last 14 days before arriving in Canada.
In addition: foreign nationals who have travelled in any of these countries within the previous 14 days will not be permitted entry into Canada.
Canadian citizens, permanent residents and people with status under the Indian Act, regardless of their vaccination status or having had a previous history of testing positive for COVID-19, who have been in these countries in the previous 14 days will be subject to enhanced testing, screening, and quarantine measures.
These individuals will be required to obtain, within 72 hours of departure, a valid negative COVID-19 molecular test in a third country before continuing their journey to Canada, the government said.
“Upon arrival to Canada, regardless of their vaccination status or having had a previous history of testing positive for COVID-19, they will subject to immediate arrival testing,” reads an official statement. “All travellers will also be required to complete a test on day 8 after arrival and quarantine for 14 days.”
All travellers will be referred to Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) officials to ensure they have a suitable quarantine plan.
Those arriving by air will be required to stay in a designated quarantine facility while they await their arrival test result.
They will not be permitted onward travel until their quarantine plan has been approved and they have received a negative arrival test result.
“Canada’s stringent testing and quarantine measures are in place to reduce the risk of importation and spread of COVID-19 and variants. These have proven effective in identifying imported cases of COVID-19 and preventing community spread. These new measures are being put in place out of an abundance of caution. We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the health of Canadians,” said Minister Duclos.
Alarms, meanwhile, have been raised around the globe. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, on Nov. 26, told media that flights from Africa should be suspended.
"They should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules," she said.
"We do know that mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus, that could spread worldwide within a few months. It is now important that all of us in Europe act very swiftly, decisively and united."
The "worst we've seen so far"
The United Kingdom, European Union and United States have put similar restrictions in place to mitigate the risk of introducing the variant to communities.
The U.K., for one, suspended flights from six African countries (South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe), after the "super variant " was called "worst we 've seen so far" by authorities.
Those arriving in Canada by land “may be allowed to proceed” directly to their suitable isolation location, the Canadian government said.
“If they do not have a suitable plan — where they will not have contact with anyone they haven’t travelled with — or do not have private transportation to their place of quarantine, they will be directed to stay at a designated quarantine facility,” reads an official statement.
There will also be “increased scrutiny of quarantine plans” for travellers from the flagged countries and rigorous monitoring to ensure travellers are complying with quarantine measures.
Also: Canadians, regardless of their vaccination status or history with COVID-19, who have entered Canada from these countries in the past 14 days “will be contacted and directed to be tested and to quarantine while they wait for the results of those tests.”
“There are no exemptions specifically provided for in these new requirements,” Ottawa said.
The Government of Canada advises Canadians to avoid travelling to countries in the South Africa region and says it will continue to monitor the situation.
There are currently no direct flights between Canada and southern African countries.
“Today's measures, including new requirements for third-country pre-departure testing for travellers coming to Canada from certain southern African countries, are being put in place to prevent new variants of the COVID-19 virus from being introduced and spread in Canada,” said Minister Alghabra on Friday.
"Only a matter of time"
Federal officials say it is working with provinces and territories and the Canadian COVID Genomics Network to detect known and potentially emerging COVID-19 virus variants including this new variant from South Africa.
But one health expert interviewed by CTV said it as "only a matter of time" before cases of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant are detected in Canada.
Dr. William Schaffner, a medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said travel bans can help delay the spread of new virus strains, but variants eventually make their way into communities.
"By that time, it's hopeful that we'll learn a lot more about these variants that will help us cope," he told CTV News Channel on Friday. "Anything that can dampen down introductions, slow the spread of this new variant around the world is important."