OTTAWA — Canada has banned visitors from southern Africa after the discovery of a new variant of concern in the region.
The new variant, deemed Omicron, first emerged in South Africa and coincided with a steep rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in that region in recent weeks, according to the World Health Organization.
The ban will apply to foreign nationals who transited through a list of seven countries in the last 14 days, including South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Namibia and eSwatini.
Those already in Canada who recently travelled through the region will need to quarantine, and be tested for COVID-19.
Global Affairs is also issuing an advisory to discourage non-essential travel to South Africa and neighbouring countries.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents arriving home from the region must get a COVID-19 test before they return, and will need to quarantine at a designated hotel until their entry test proves negative.
After that they will be able to isolate at home until they test negative ten days after arrival.
Currently there are no direct flights from southern Africa to Canada.
"We know very little about this variant right now," Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said at a briefing Friday.
The mutations that have been detected show the potential for greater transmissibility, she said, and she won't be surprised to see cases crop up in Canada.
"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.)"
Opposition parties and provincial premiers have called for strict border measures to prevent cases of the potentially dangerous new variant from being imported into Canada.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole had called on the Canadian government to issue travel advisories, banning non-essential travel to and from the region earlier Friday morning.
"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.
The party was critical when the government delayed closing Canada's borders at the outset of the pandemic in 2020.
The premiers for Alberta, Ontario and Quebec also called for all travellers originating from those countries to be banned from Canada until more is known about the variant.
Researchers are already working to learn more about the effects of this new variant, according to 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.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2021.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press