Omicron response should focus on global vaccine equity, not travel bans: scientists

·4 min read

As Canada confirms its first cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, scientists say banning travellers from southern African countries in an effort to curb its importation is wishful thinking that could do more harm than good.

Public health officials in Ontario confirmed the country's first two cases of the variant in the Ottawa area on Sunday afternoon, noting they were found in people who had recently been in Nigeria. The news comes just days after the federal government announced it was banning travellers from seven southern African nations — Nigeria not among them — in an effort to keep Omicron out of the country.

Caroline Colijn, a mathematician and epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, said it was "wishful thinking" to believe the variant, which was first detected in South Africa, would somehow be contained to the region. She noted cases had begun cropping up in several other countries that weren't targeted by the heightened restrictions even before the Ontario diagnoses came to light, adding it was only a matter of time before a case was found in Canada.

"I think we need broader measures at the border, and it should apply to all international travel," Colijn said in an interview Sunday. "We can't pick these seven countries and say, 'Okay, for the next three weeks, this is where it's going to be.'"

What's more, Colijn said singling out these countries with travel bans could dissuade them from sharing critical research about Omicron or future variants with the rest of the world.

"The South African public health labs are hugely to be commended for sequencing this, finding it, sharing the data ... The scientific world will be able to do so much good with that information," she said. "I really hope we're not disincentivizing other countries from doing that if they have huge economic consequences because of travel bans."

Ottawa announced Friday that it was tightening border measures for anyone who'd been to South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia. Foreign nationals who visited any of the seven countries within 14 days of their planned arrival in Canada would no longer be allowed entry, said a release from the federal public health agency.

Canadians returning from these countries will have to quarantine for 14 days and be subject to enhanced screening and testing measures, the release said.

Canada is not alone: The U.S. plans to ban travel from South Africa and several other neighbouring countries beginning Monday, while other jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Israel and the European Union have also restricted or banned travel from the region.

This despite opposition from the World Health Organization, which has warned against overreaction before more is known about the variant.

WHO's regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions.

"Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,'' Moeti said in a statement. "If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based."

Moeti praised South Africa for following international health regulations and informing WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the Omicron variant.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the restrictions "completely unjustified.'"

"The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,'' he said in a speech Sunday evening.

Meanwhile, Omicron cases have been confirmed in The Netherlands, Israel, Australia, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, in addition to the infections announced Sunday in Ottawa.

Dr. Zain Chagla, an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, agrees the "blind closures" don't make scientific sense. The variant may have been detected in South Africa because they have good genomic surveillance infrastructure, he said.

"This has likely been circulating for some time," Chagla said in an interview Sunday. "It doesn't really make sense that we use rigid travel bans as a way of preventing cases, as compared to mitigating spread."

Chagla said the situation signals an urgent need for a united, global effort to increase vaccine access across the globe.

"This is the global recognition of vaccine equity," he said.

For example, Canada needs to ask itself whether it will import more COVID-19 vaccines to offer boosters to low-risk populations like those under 50, or whether it will instead work on getting those doses of high-efficacy vaccines to countries in greater need, he added.

"Those countries can then work on their own vaccine hesitancy campaigns, with local solutions, rather than having to worry about supply," he said.

"If we're going to repeat the same mistakes this time, and keep re-vaccinating our lowest risk populations and forget about our global duties, I'm pretty sure we're going to see this scenario playing itself out over and over and over again."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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