South African health officials have identified a new coronavirus variant following a spike in COVID-19 cases in Gauteng, South Africa.

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South African health officials have identified a new coronavirus variant following a spike in COVID-19 cases in Gauteng, South Africa.

For weeks, the country was recording about 200 new cases a day, but on Thursday, the number of new cases suddenly skyrocketed to 2,465. It’s estimated that 90 per cent of the 1,000 new cases detected through PCR tests on Wednesday in Gauteng were caused by the new variant, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation in South Africa.

This has led to several countries, including the U.K. and now Canada and the U.S., to swiftly implement travel restrictions. The federal government announced the decision in a news conference on Friday, implementing an immediate travel ban from seven different countries in the Southern Africa region. According to reports, the U.S. is also planning to issue its own travel ban for countries in Southern Africa by non-U.S. citizens beginning Monday.

The announcement came after Ontario Premier Doug Ford and federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called for the implementation of travel bans on Friday. Members of the European Union have agreed to restrict all travel from seven countries in the Southern Africa region, despite the new variant having already been detected in Belgium, which is an EU country.

According to lab reports, the case in Belgium is in a young woman who developed symptoms 11 days after travelling to Egypt from Turkey. She did not report to have any links to South Africa or other South African countries and she was unvaccinated.

What is Canada doing about the new Omicron variant?

In a news conference Friday afternoon, federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced five different measures Canada is taking in hopes of preventing the spread of the new variant.

First, Canada is moving to ban entry of foreign nationals into Canada who have travelled through southern Africa in the last 14 days. The ban impacts seven different countries in Southern Africa including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Anyone who recently arrived in Canada from the region in the last 14 days must quarantine immediately, take a COVID test and remain quarantined until they get a negative test result. To implement this, the federal government will be working with provinces and territories.

Canadians, permanent residents and those with right of entry into Canada will be tested upon arrival. They will quarantine until they get a negative test, only then will they be allowed to quarantine elsewhere in a safe and appropriate manner. They are then tested again on the 8th day until they complete their quarantine period.

The federal government is issuing a travel advisory asking all Canadians not to travel to Southern Africa for the time being.

Lastly, Canadians who return from that region and need to transit through another country will have to take a test in that transit country and remain there until they test negative before being allowed to return home. The government adds that there are currently no direct flights from Southern Africa.

“We are acting quickly in order to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” Duclos said.

What is Omicron (B.1.1.529) and should we be concerned?

The new variant is called Omicron. The announcement was made by the World Health Organization following a meeting in Geneva. The new variant has been added to WHO’s list of variants of concern.

There’s little known about the new variant, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has moved quickly to hold an emergency session in Geneva to discuss the emerging variant.

The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, said de Oliveira. The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19 and is also how mRNA vaccines and other vaccines help fight the virus.

There are fewer than a 100 whole genome sequences available, a research tool used to reveal the complete DNA makeup of an organism that helps scientists better understand disease and illness. The WHO praised South Africa for quickly reporting the discovery of the new variant.

Scientists know that the new variant is genetically distinct from previous variants, including the Beta and Delta variants, but do not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous.

“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and WHO technical lead on COVID-19.

But it is something to watch, the organization warns.

Health experts are particularly concerned about its impact on diagnostics, on treatment and on the efficacy of current vaccines in fighting the new variant.

“We have every indication that the vaccines are still effective in preventing severe disease and or complications,” said South African officials in a news conference on Friday.

Officials in that country said the ratio of vaccinated to unvaccinated people is four to one.

“We do think it’s more transmissible. We do think that it has already spread quite widely... and we will have more immunology and transmission work taken by the middle of next week,” they added.

The WHO is reminding people that the more the virus circulates, the more it is able to change and adapt and has assembled a team to monitor the variant and will work toward determining if it should be classified as a variant of interest (VOI) or a variant of concern (VOC). If it is designated as a VOI or VOC, only then will the WHO give it a Greek name.

The Delta variant is still by far the most transmissible form of COVID; it accounts for more than 99 per cent of sequences shared with the world’s biggest public database.

Which countries have reported B.1.1.529 cases?

It’s unclear exactly where the new variant originated. It was first detected in South Africa, and then later identified in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

How are countries reacting?

News of the emerging variant sent stock markets tumbling worldwide. Oil prices fell below US $80 a barrel in early trading Friday. Investors hurried to the safety of bonds, and so-called stay-at-home companies like Zoom and Peloton, who recorded record gains during the pandemic lockdowns and saw jumps in trading. It’s a complete reversal from earlier this month, when travel companies and Airbnb showed signs of recovery as investors displayed optimism that the world would soon open up again.

At least 10 countries, including Canada, has announced measures about the new COVID-19 variant.

In a news conference Friday, South African officials called the swift travel bans “unjustified” and wanted to reassure South Africans and the global community at large that the data is still new and being evaluated by medical experts. South African Minister of Health Dr. Joe Phaahla said disclosing information by the country’s scientists who disovered the new variant was in line with the norms and standards as prescribed by the WHO, and that they acted transparently and swiftly. Phaahla goes on to say that other countries quickly imposing travel bans and measures on South Africa are completely against the norms and standards laid out by the World Health Organization.

"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” said South Africa’s minister for international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor.

“This uncertainty is creating panic and unfortunately resulting in many countries taking precautionary, temporary steps by banning travel to South Africa and our region. This is a blow to our economy and will be felt most in our province, as our tourism and hospitality sector is highly reliant on international travellers over this peak season to sustain itself and create jobs,” South Africa’s Premier Alan Winde said in a statement released Friday.

The WHO is also cautioning countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions, urging them to take a “risk-based and scientific approach.”

In the past, governments have taken days, weeks and even months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement.

When will we know more?

It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, said WHO.

The organization has assembled a team of researchers who are getting together to understand where these mutations have been identified and what kind of impact it will have on current COVID-19 therapeutic measures.

Speaking directly to the camera in a live session posted Thursday, van Kerkhove said, “Every single one of you watching has a role to play in driving transmission down, as well as protecting yourself against severe disease and death. So get vaccinated when you can, make sure you receive the full course of your doses, and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing that virus to someone else.”

With files from the Associated Press.

Ivy Mak is a team editor on the Star’s breaking news desk, based in Toronto. Reach her via email: ivymak@thestar.ca