The Omicron COVID-19 variant was first discovered in South Africa and Botswana last week. On Friday, the World Health Organization B.1.1.529 declared a variant of concern and gave it the name “Omicron” for the letter of the Greek alphabet.
Omicron has raised worldwide concern in recent days based on reports that it may be more transmissible than Delta and may evade some protection from available vaccines. Researchers do not yet have answers to these questions, but hope to know more in the coming days.
Here’s what’s happening in Canada and around the world today:
Where has Omicron been found around the world?
Outside South Africa, Omicron cases have been confirmed in an increasing number of countries. Canada, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong are among those who have reported cases. Spain confirmed its first case on Monday, in a traveler who arrived from South Africa.
Portuguese health authorities have meanwhile identified 13 cases of Omicron in members of a top football club and are investigating possible local transmission of the variant. This would be the first reported case of local transmission outside southern Africa.
– The Canadian Press
G7 health ministers agree to monitor Omicron closely, sharing information
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and his colleagues from other G7 countries on Monday agreed to closely monitor and share information on the highly mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The new variant appeared in South Africa, coinciding with an increase in COVID-19 cases in the region.
Its appearance led to border closures as well as screening measures in Canada and around the world.
Cases of the variant have been discovered in Canada, and officials have warned that more cases are likely to be found in the country in the coming days.
G7 health ministers met virtually to discuss the new threat and stressed the importance of ensuring that all countries have access to COVID-19 vaccines and the support needed to get them into arms.
They also expressed strong support for an international pathogen monitoring network within the WHO, a joint statement issued after the meeting said.
Ministers agreed to meet again next month.
– The Canadian Press
Quebec reports the first confirmed case of Omicron variant
Quebec health authorities have confirmed a case of the Omicron variant of the new coronavirus.
Health Minister Christian Dubé announced this today at a press conference updating the province’s COVID-19 situation.
Dubé says that 115 people who recently traveled to the province, mainly from countries in southern Africa, have been asked to take a PCR test and isolate themselves.
He says experts are working to sequence the tests and determine if the variant is more contagious or more vaccine-resistant than previous strains.
Public Health Director Horacio Arruda said the Quebec case also involves a person who recently traveled from Nigeria, but he did not say whether it was related to the Ontario cases.
– The Canadian Press
Canada attends a G7 emergency meeting on Omicron
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos attended an emergency meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19. Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos attended an emergency meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19.
A spokeswoman for Duclos said more information about the G7 virtual meeting will be released later Monday.
– The Canadian Press
WHO warns of ‘very high’ risk associated with the Omicron variant
The World Health Organization warned on Monday that the global risks associated with the new Omicron variant of coronavirus were “very high”, despite significant questions about the variant itself. Yet countries around the world rushed to defend themselves against its proliferation with a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions reminiscent of the earliest days of the pandemic.
The WHO has called on national authorities to intensify surveillance, testing and vaccinations, reinforcing the key findings that prompted their technical advisers on Friday to label Omicron as a “variant of concern.”
The agency warned that the variant’s “high number of mutations” – including up to 32 variations in the nail protein – meant that “there could be future increases in COVID-19, which could have serious consequences.”
Experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said that it can take two weeks or longer before there is more information about the variant’s transmissibility and the severity of the disease it causes. So far, scientists believe that Omicron’s mutations could allow it to spread more easily than previous versions of the virus, but that existing vaccines are likely to offer protection against serious illness and death.
– New York Times wiring service
Biden calls for indoor masking, vaccination and says the new variant is ’cause for concern, not a cause for panic’
President Joe Biden on Monday urged Americans not to panic over the new COVID-19 Omicron variant, saying the United States was working with pharmaceutical companies to make contingency plans if new vaccines were needed.
Biden said the country would not go back to lockdowns to stop the spread of Omicron, and he would lay out his strategy on Thursday to fight the pandemic over the winter. He urged people to get vaccinated, get boosters and wear masks.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said in remarks at the White House after a meeting with his COVID-19 team.
“We will fight and beat this new variant,” he said.
Biden said it was inevitable that Omicron cases, first discovered in southern Africa, would show up in the United States. He said officials were still studying Omicron, but believed existing vaccines would continue to protect against serious illness.
Biden said his administration worked with vaccine manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans.
“In the event, hopefully, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and implementation with all available tools,” he said.
Biden said he would instruct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “use the fastest available process without cutting any corners for the safety of getting such vaccines approved and on the market if it is necessary.”
A U.S. travel ban went into effect earlier Monday, blocking most visitors from eight South African nations from entering the country. Previous flights from South Africa to the United States did not screen passengers after the variant was found.
Biden said travel restrictions were introduced to give the country time to get more people vaccinated.
Countries are in a hurry to close borders
Many countries around the world slammed their doors again to try to keep the new Omicron variant in check.
Japan announced that it would block the access of all foreign visitors, and joined Israel in doing so a few days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including members of the United States and the European Union, have moved to ban travelers arriving from southern Africa.
COVID-19 infections showed the difficulty of keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders. Yet many countries tried to do just that, even at the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closures often have a limited effect and can wreak havoc on life and livelihoods. Others argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant.
– Associated Press
Omicron in Canada
The first two positive cases of the Omicron variant have been discovered in Ontario after random testing at Montreal airport when they first arrived in Canada, and that four more cases are being investigated, the province’s health chief said. Dr. Kieran Moore called for mandatory testing for all travelers arriving in Canada to respond to the new threat.
There are two individuals in Ottawa and two in Hamilton waiting for results of whole genome sequencing to see if they have the Omicron variant, said Dr. Moore Monday. The province and the federal government are working to contact a total of 375 people who arrived in the province in the past two weeks from seven African countries that have reported Omicron activity.
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