There are two confirmed cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in Ottawa, the Ontario government announced Sunday.
"Today, the province of Ontario has confirmed two cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in Ottawa, both of which were reported in individuals with recent travel from Nigeria. Ottawa Public Health is conducting case and contact management and the patients are in isolation," the statement said.
These are the first cases of the omicron variant confirmed in Canada, coming just days after the country implemented new travel restrictions on foreign nationals who had visited several countries in southern Africa over the preceding two weeks.
Those travel restrictions went into effect on Friday. The omicron variant was first identified by South African researchers and has provoked global concern.
Little is known about the new variant, dubbed omicron by the World Health Organization and labelled as a variant of concern. It is being linked to a rapid rise of cases in a South African province.
It is not known at this time whether the variant is more transmissible, or more dangerous to the health of those who are infected by it, than other coronavirus variants.
"The best defence against the omicron variant is stopping it at our border. In addition to the measures recently announced, we continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary steps to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travellers irrespective of where they're coming from to further protect against the spread of this new variant," said the statement from Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health.
The provincial government urged residents to get vaccinated, including with booster doses, and to continue following public health guidance.
"Ontario is prepared and ready to respond to this new variant."
More confirmed cases likely: health minister
In a statement released Sunday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the confirmation of two omicron cases is a signal that the country's monitoring system is working but to expect more cases of the variant.
"As the monitoring and testing continues with provinces and territories, it is expected that other cases of this variant will be found in Canada," Duclos said.
"I know that this new variant may seem concerning," he added, but said existing vaccines and public health measures were helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
In a separate statement, the Public Health Agency of Canada said border measures could change as the situation develops.
"The Government of Canada will continue to assess the evolving situation and adjust border measures as required," it said
'Better to be safe than sorry'
Reacting to the news, epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Labos emphasized the lack of information the world has so far about the omicron variant, noting that some other variants failed to take hold and out-compete the dominant strain.
"While it's important not to under-react, it's important not to overreact. We don't have a lot of information about whether this variant is actually more dangerous than the variants that we've dealt with," he said in an interview on CBC News Network.
Still, he said it was "better to be safe than sorry" and take precautions. But he said that until there was more information, it was not necessary to radically change behaviour, so long as you are vaccinated and otherwise acting in accordance with public health guidance.
"The stuff that worked before should work now."
WHO urges countries to keep borders open
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on Sunday summarizing what it knows about the variant. It said it is studying whether the variant is more transmissible than those currently spreading, such as delta, as well as whether omicron increases the risk of reinfection, as suggested by "preliminary evidence."
The idea of travel bans in response to new variants has long been criticized by some as an ineffective measure at stopping the spread of the virus. South Africa has said the travel measures are "unjustified."
Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa, said instituting travel bans targeted at southern Africa "attacks global solidarity."
"COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions," Moeti said.
In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live that aired prior to the government announcement on Sunday, WHO special adviser Dr. Peter Singer said it "wouldn't be a surprise" if the variant was in Canada.
He said the United Nations agency believes travel restrictions should be "risk-based and time-limited," part of a comprehensive package, rather than the only measure taken to mitigate the risk of a new variant.
"They're definitely not a silver bullet," he said. Singer argued the international community should not create situations that disincentivize countries from being transparent about new variants.
Singer said the most important things Canadians can do to protect themselves are the same as they have been throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: get vaccinated and follow public health measures.
"This is a call for individuals to raise their guard. There are things individuals can do which help with any variant or any version of this virus, including omicron."
He urged Canada and other countries to redouble their efforts to provide resources to the global vaccination campaign, saying that's the best way to stop the spread of omicron and potential future variants.