Two dozen travellers were instructed to self-isolate upon their return to Manitoba to guard against the potential spread of the omicron variant of concern, which has put the world on alert since being identified in southern Africa.
Manitoba has started screening for the new variant, said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, at a news conference Wednesday.
Manitoba has identified 24 travellers who returned to the province from African countries within the past two weeks, he said.
Canada was among the nations to ban travel to and from 10 countries in the wake of the detection of the latest variant, also known as B.1.1.529. The variant has not been found in Manitoba, but if it is, Manitoba will conduct "quite significant contact investigations if we find a positive case," Roussin said.
For now, the returned travellers are subject to regulations under the federal Quarantine Act. The provincial Cadham Laboratory has been sequencing all travel-related positive COVID-19 test results to look for the omicron variant, Roussin reiterated.
In response to concerns about the variant, which was classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization less than a week ago, the lab quickly set up a screening process for omicron, Roussin said.
The province still conducts genomic sequencing for COVID-19 test results that come back positive for a variant of concern, and that work is still happening in the wake of omicron. Roussin was asked for specifics about the proportion of positive test samples that are sent for screening and sequencing, as well as the number of travel-related results that have undergone sequencing, but he did not have those figures Wednesday.
"We have not stopped sequencing our positives, so we do sequence a number of our test positives going forward and we’re going to continue to do so. We’ve also initiated screening for this variant, so we’re doing a lot of things to continue looking for and monitoring variants," he said.
Much is still unknown about omicron. It has many more mutations of the spike protein than the delta variant, for example, but research continues to figure out what that means. It’s unknown whether the variant is more contagious or expected to be more resistant to vaccines than other varients.
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba’s vaccine task force, said even if some aspects of the immune response generated by existing vaccines turn out not to be as effective against the omicron variant, the vaccines still work.
"The short answer is that we really don’t know yet how well the vaccine works against omicron. The longer answer is that we are not back to square one," Reimer said.
"We need to wait to get more data before we know exactly how big the impact will be, but regardless of what we learn, the vaccine will help protect you," she said.
Manitoba public health officials are not considering any changes to public-health restrictions as a result of omicron, Roussin said.
"We’re still learning about this variant and our response is much the same as what we have (in place) right now," he said, citing existing measures such as mask mandates and proof-of-vaccination requirements.
"As we learn more and more about this new variant, we may have to adjust our response."
Although sequencing from other countries has revealed omicron does not appear to have originated in southern Africa, that is where labs first discovered it last week. Travel bans exist for Botswana, Egypt, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The federal government imposed the travel bans on Nov. 30, four days after omicron was classified as a variant of concern.
The first case of omicron in the U.S. was detected Wednesday. The infected person returned to the U.S. from southern Africa more than a week ago.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.