Conservative leader Erin O'Toole questions the government during Question Period in the House of Commons, Thursday, November 25, 2021 in Ottawa. O'Toole has called for the government to immediately strengthen border screening in the face of a highly mutated new variant of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

New variant of concern discovered, sparking border concerns in Canada

OTTAWA — The World Health Organization has identified a new COVID-19 variant of concern, leading to calls for the Canadian government to immediately strengthen border screening.

The new variant, deemed Omicron, first emerged in South Africa and coincided with a steep increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in that region in recent weeks.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the WHO wrote in a statement Friday.

“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other (variants of concern.)”

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra are expectedto hold a news conference with Canada’s chief public health officer Friday afternoon to discuss the new variant.

“We are currently in discussions in monitoring what’s happening and discussions about what measures we can implement,” Alghabra told reporters earlier Friday.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has called on the Canadian government to issue travel advisories, banning non-essential travel to and from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

The Conservatives also want to see mandatory screening at all international airports from affected counties, regardless of vaccination status and mandatory quarantine for all travellers from those countries.

The party was critical when the government delayed closing Canada’s borders at the outset of the pandemic in 2020, and O’Toole said the government should not delay now.

“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,” O’Toole said in a statement Friday morning.

Alberta and Ontario’s premiers have also called for all travellers originating from those countries to be banned from Canada until more is known about the variant.

There are no direct flights from South Africa to Canada.

Canada currently requires a negative molecular COVID-19 test to enter the country, even for fully vaccinated travellers. As of Tuesday, all travellers will need to have two doses of a WHO-approved vaccine to travel to or within Canada.

Not much is known about the new variant, according to the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove.

“Researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are, and what that potentially may mean for our diagnostics or therapeutics in our vaccines,” she said at a briefing Thursday.

In question period Friday, Conservative MPs asked government ministers repeatedly about the plan to protect Canadians from a potentially dangerous new variant.

“We’ll not hesitate to take action to protect Canadians,” said Associate Minister of Health Carolyn Bennett.