Targeted travel bans ‘too late’ to stop Omicron COVID-19 variant, experts say – National

It’s too late for travel bans targeting specific countries to have much of an effect on the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, experts say, particularly as it’s already in Canada.

“Unfortunately for this Omicron variant, it’s too late at this stage, I think. It’s already here,” said Julianne Piper, a research fellow and project coordinator with the Pandemics and Borders research project at Simon Fraser University.

The Omicron variant has several mutations that have scientists concerned, according to the World Health Organization. There is some indication that it might be more transmissible and be more likely to infect someone who is vaccinated or previously infected with COVID-19, compared to previous variants, the organization said, though more study is needed to figure this out.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: South Africa calls for calm over international response to Omicron variant'

COVID-19: South Africa calls for calm over international response to Omicron variant

COVID-19: South Africa calls for calm over international response to Omicron variant

In response to worries about the newly discovered Omicron variant — which the WHO named a variant of concern — Canada on Friday banned travellers from seven African countries: South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini. Other countries have enacted similar bans.

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But just two days later, Ontario reported two cases of the Omicron variant in travelers in Ottawa. They had travelled from Nigeria — a country not on the banned travel list — according to officials.

Canada has now confirmed three cases in Ontario and Quebec, and is investigating other possible cases.

This shows that the travel ban isn’t going to help much, experts say.

“What we’ve tended to see around targeted travel measures is that they’re limited in their effects, mostly because, as we’ve seen in the last couple of days, we’ve confirmed that this Omicron variant is already in Canada,” Piper said.

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Dr. Caroline Colijn, a mathematician and epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, said it’s “wishful thinking” to believe that the virus would stay contained in the countries targeted by the ban.

“I think we need broader measures at the border, and it should apply to all international travel,” she said in an interview Sunday.

“We can’t pick these seven countries and say, ‘Okay, for the next three weeks, this is where it’s going to be.”’

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Click to play video: 'Quebec confirms 1st case of Omicron COVID-19 variant'

Quebec confirms 1st case of Omicron COVID-19 variant

Quebec confirms 1st case of Omicron COVID-19 variant

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital, added that many of the cases present in other countries “have no connection whatsoever to southern Africa.”

So far, cases of the variant have been reported in Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Hong Kong and Australia, among others.

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Bogoch said that while he can appreciate that politicians “have to appear to do something,” and people want their political leaders to do something, “when we’re dealing with very transmissible respiratory viruses, having focused travel restrictions to a particular country or a particular region, it’s not usually an effective strategy.”

Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, agrees that the “blind closures” don’t make scientific sense. The variant may have been detected in South Africa because they have good genomic surveillance infrastructure, he said.

“This has likely been circulating for some time,” Chagla said in an interview Sunday. “It doesn’t really make sense that we use rigid travel bans as a way of preventing cases, as compared to mitigating spread.”

Read more:
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Piper worries that South Africa is being unfairly punished for detecting the variant and its transparency in alerting the globe.

Experts in South Africa have expressed the same concerns.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, tweeted Monday that the country is facing a shortage of reagents needed to test for the virus — because due to travel bans, flights carrying supplies aren’t able to come in.

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“South Africa really did the world a service by sharing that data and sharing that they identified a new variant, and now they’re paying quite a heavy price for that,” Piper said.

“So that’s a really unfortunate sort of punitive consequence of these reactive travel bans that probably won’t have a significant impact in terms of public health at this stage.”

She’d prefer to see Canadian provinces beef up their contact tracing and testing systems rather than have more targeted travel bans. Testing a greater number of international travelers upon arrival could also make a difference, she said.

Chagla said the situation signals an urgent need for a united, global effort to increase vaccine access across the globe.

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“This is the global recognition of vaccine equity,” he said.

— with files from the Canadian Press

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© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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