Canadian Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos attended an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers Monday to discuss the emergence of 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.
The news prompted border closures as well as screening measures in Canada and around the world.
“The overall risk related to Omicron is considered very high for a number of reasons,” the World Health Organization warned.
“There is concerning preliminary evidence on Omicron suggesting, in contrast to previous (variants of concern), both potential immune escape and higher transmissibility that could lead to further surges with severe consequences.”
Two cases of the Omicron variant have been discovered in Ottawa, and public-health workers are doing contact tracing in an attempt to stamp out transmission. Officials warn more cases are likely to be found within Canada in coming days.
A spokeswoman for Duclos said more information about the virtual G7 meeting will be released later Monday.
The developments come as countries debated a new global convention on pandemic preparedness and response at a special meeting of the World Health Assembly on Monday.
It is only the second time the group has held an emergency summit of this kind.
If member countries agree, the assembly would begin developing what would essentially serve as an international treaty on pandemic readiness.
“Global health security is too important to be left to chance, or goodwill, or shifting geopolitical currents, or the vested interests of companies and shareholders,” World Health Organization director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the outset of the summit.
“The best way we can address them is with a legally binding agreement between nations: an accord forged from the recognition that we have no future but a common future.”
He said the emergence of the Omicron variant underlines the perilous and precarious nature of the global situation.
“Indeed, Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics. Our current system disincentives countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores,” he said.
The idea is to prevent another global crisis like the one posed by COVID-19 and its new, potentially more transmissible variants.
“Our position has always been that we are stronger when we work together,” Duclos said Friday in support of a new convention.
A binding international agreement would help countries to collaborate and would allow Canada to more easily share its expertise on the world stage, Duclos said.
“That level of policy and scientific leadership is a sign that we can do even better in the future as we collaborate with WHO and other organization in order to prevent the incidents of future pandemics and protect Canadians against such things.”
The WHO working group on the file says governments should look to develop the convention in tandem with efforts to strengthen existing international health regulations.
The working group’s priorities include a focus on global equity, rapid risk detection and assessment, a global approach to misinformation and the sharing of pathogens, genetic information and biological samples.
Quebec case confirmed
Quebec health officials have confirmed a case of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
Health Minister Christian Dubé made the announcement Monday at a news conference updating the province’s COVID-19 situation.
Dubé says 115 people who recently travelled to the province, principally from countries in southern Africa, have been asked to take a PCR test and to isolate.
He says experts are working to sequence the tests and to determine whether the variant is more contagious or more vaccine-resistant than previous strains.
Ontario reported Canada’s first two cases of the Omicron variant of concern on the weekend. The province said today the two infected people were recently in Nigeria and were tested for the virus in Montreal before travelling on to Ottawa.
Public health director Horacio Arruda said Quebec’s case also involves a person who recently travelled from Nigeria, but he did not say whether it was connected to the Ontario cases.
Meanwhile, Ontario was investigating four more possible cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant and offered to test hundreds of travelers Monday as the province’s top doctor warned additional infections would likely be detected after the country’s first two were found in Ottawa.
The province was also mulling an acceleration of its third-dose COVID-19 vaccine rollout in response to the largely unknown threat, but the government said it wouldn’t implement widespread public health restrictions or slow reopening plans until more is known about the new variant.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer, said two of the potential cases under investigation are in the Hamilton area and two are in Ottawa. That’s in addition to the two confirmed cases in Ottawa announced Sunday.
“I would not be surprised if we find more in Ontario, because we’ve got a very robust surveillance system,” Moore said, noting that Ontario is performing genome sequencing on all eligible positive COVID-19 tests.
—The Canadian Press