As Canada confirms its first cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, scientists say that banning travelers from southern African countries in an effort to curb their importation is an illusion that could do more harm than good.
Public health officials in Ontario confirmed the country’s first two cases of the variant in the Ottawa area on Sunday afternoon, noting that they were found in people who had recently been to Nigeria. The news comes just days after the federal government announced it was banning travelers from seven southern African countries, not including Nigeria, in an effort to keep Omicron out of the country.
Caroline Colijn, a mathematician and epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, said it was an “illusion” to believe that the variant, which was first detected in South Africa, would somehow be contained in the region. He noted that cases had started showing up in several other countries that weren’t subject to the tightest restrictions even before the Ontario diagnoses came to light, adding that it was only a matter of time before a case was found in Canada.
“I think we need more comprehensive measures at the border, and it should apply to all international travel,” Colijn said in an interview Sunday. “We can’t just pick these seven countries and say, ‘Okay, for the next three weeks, this is where it’s going to be.’
Additionally, Colijn said that flagging these countries with travel bans could deter them from sharing critical research on Omicron or future variants with the rest of the world.
“South Africa’s public health laboratories are highly commended for sequencing this, finding it, sharing the data … The scientific world will be able to do a lot of good with that information,” he said. “I really hope that we are not discouraging other countries from doing that if they have huge economic consequences due to travel bans.”
Ottawa announced Friday that it will tighten border measures for anyone who has been to South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia. Foreign nationals who visited any of the seven countries within 14 days of their expected arrival in Canada would no longer be allowed entry, a statement from the federal public health agency said.
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Canadians returning from these countries will have to be quarantined for 14 days and will be subject to enhanced screening and testing measures, according to the statement.
Canada is not alone: The United States plans to ban travel from South Africa and several other neighboring countries starting Monday, while other jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Israel and the European Union have also restricted or banned travel from the region.
This despite opposition from the World Health Organization, which warned against overreaction before more is known about the variant.
#Omicron’s response should focus on global vaccine equity, not travel bans – scientists. # COVID-19
The WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow international scientific and health standards to avoid the use of travel restrictions.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19, but they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Moeti said in a statement. “If restrictions are in place, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and they should be scientifically based.”
Moeti praised South Africa for following international health regulations and reporting to WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the Omicron variant.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the restrictions “completely unjustified”.
“The travel ban is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,” he said in a speech Sunday night.
Meanwhile, Omicron cases have been confirmed in the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, in addition to infections announced Sunday in Ottawa.
Dr. Zain Chagla, associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, agrees that “blind closures” do not make scientific sense. The variant may have been detected in South Africa because they have a good genomic surveillance infrastructure, he said.
“This has likely been around for some time,” Chagla said in an interview Sunday. “It really doesn’t make sense for us to use rigid travel bans as a way to prevent cases, as opposed to mitigating the spread.”
Chagla said the situation indicates an urgent need for a united global effort to increase access to vaccines around the world.
“This is the global recognition of the equity of vaccines,” he said.
For example, Canada must ask itself whether it will import more COVID-19 vaccines to provide boosters to low-risk populations such as those under 50, or whether it will instead work to bring those doses of high-efficacy vaccines to countries in greatest need. he added.
“Those countries can then work on their own vaccinate campaigns with vaccines, with local solutions, instead of having to worry about supply,” he said.
“If we are going to repeat the same mistakes this time, and we continue to vaccinate our lower-risk populations and forget about our global obligations, I’m pretty sure we will see this scenario repeating itself over and over again.”
This Canadian Press report was first published on November 28, 2021.
– With files from The Associated Press.