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Canada puts travel ban on flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries


A new COVID-19 strain, now known as Omicron or B.1.1.529, is raising alarms around the world due to its extremely high level of transmission

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OTTAWA – Canada is closing the border to all foreigners who have been to seven countries in southern Africa in the last 14 days as a new COVID-19 variant of concern raises alarms around the world.

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The ban and a host of new testing and quarantines requirements for Canadians returning home applies to people who have set so much as a foot in either South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini to in the last two weeks, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Friday afternoon.

For example, those in Canada who have visited either of those countries in the past two weeks must now quarantine and get a COVID-19 test as quickly as possible.

Canadians and permanent residents who will henceforth visit the area will need to get a negative PCR COVID-19 test before the last leg of their return trip (there are no direct flights from there to Canada), then will be tested on arrival to Canada and be sent to a quarantine hotel until they receive a negative result.

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When that happens, they will be able to leave the hotel to quarantine at home for 14 days and get tested one more time, eight days after their arrival to Canada.

All these new requirements apply regardless of vaccination status, the ministers clarified.

The news comes as the new COVID-19 strain, currently known as B.1.1.529 and first identified this week, was officially designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday and given the name “omicron”.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning.

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Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other (variants of concern),” WHO said in a statement.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) will also update its travel advisories to strongly discourage travel to any of those seven countries.

Canada’s latest measures are expected to remain in place until Jan. 31, though the ministers warned they could be extended and expanded to include more countries if the omicron variant becomes prevalent in other countries.

On the same day, the U.S. government also announced a similar travel ban for foreigners who had recently visited southern Africa. The U.K. closed its border to South Africa on Thursday evening, and the European Commission recommended that all member states suspend air travel from southern African and “other countries affected” as well.

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This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning

Canada’ Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said no cases of the new variant have yet been detected here.

Tam explained that the omicron variant is so concerning because it contains a series of mutations in two key areas of the virus’ spike protein, which allows it to penetrate our body’s cells and cause an infection. Early data indicates that the new strain has an extremely high rate of transmission.

“Mutations to these areas may impact our body’s natural immunity, as well as potentially reduce immunity offered by vaccines,” Tam said.

“Due to the potential for increased transmissibility and the possibility of increased resistance to vaccine induced protection, we are concerned about this new variant and closely monitoring the evolving situation.”

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Hours before the announcement, opposition parties and leaders of Canada’s largest provinces called on the federal government Friday morning to ban all non-essential travel from African countries that are affected by the new variant.

“With reports of the spread of a new COVID-19 variant, we have a small window of opportunity to act, and we must move now. Canada’s Conservatives are calling on Justin Trudeau to secure Canada’s borders,” Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said in a statement Friday morning.

The call was quickly echoed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Quebec Premier François Legault and the Bloc Québécois.

“We cannot repeat the same mistakes that allowed the Alpha and Delta variants to enter our country. Our best defence right now is stopping this variant at the border,” Ford said in a statement Friday.

A Hong Kong health department spokesperson told Reuters later Thursday that it was detected in a person who’d travelled from Canada who was quarantining in a hotel room adjacent to another traveler from South Africa who was found to have the variant and a poor-quality mask.

Canada’s top doctor said she was aware of the case and her department would be following up with Hong Kong officials to get more details about the case. But she also said she suspects the traveler from Canada had likely caught it during travel or at the quarantine hotel.

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