n November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the new COVID-19 B.1.1.529 variant, also known as omicron, as a variant of concern due to its mutations that can increase the risk of reinfection.
On November 28, Ontario health officials reported the first two cases of the new COVID-19 B.1.1.529 variant, also known as omicron, in the province. According to a statement released by Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore, the patients who tested positive for the new variant returned to Ottawa from Nigeria and are currently in isolation, while Ottawa Public Health is conducting case and contact management.
“The Ontario COVID-19 Genomic Network is continuing to actively monitor for all potential variants circulating in the province, including the Omicron variant, and is conducting genomic sequencing on 100 per cent of eligible COVID-19 positive samples,” the statement reads.
The first confirmed case of omicron originated in South Africa from a patient specimen collected on November 9. Consequently, officials in South Africa reported the variant on Nov. 24, while confirmed cases of COVID-19 omicron infection have been reported in Japan, France, and the Netherlands.
It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more easily spread compared to other COVID-19 variants, including Delta. In recent days, the number of individuals testing positive for infection with the omicron variant has risen in areas of South Africa, and epidemiological studies are underway to determine whether this is due to increased transmissibility of omicron or other factors. The number of new daily confirmed omicron COVID-19 cases has increased from 200 to more than 3,200 over the course of several weeks.
Furthermore, it is not yet clear whether infection with omicron causes more severe disease compared to other variants, including delta. Likewise, there is also currently no information to suggest that symptoms caused by omicron differ from those caused by other variants.
WHO is also conducting studies to determine whether existing vaccines are effective against omicron, which can be detected by PCR tests.
“I think it’s fair to say that this variant probably emerged weeks or even months ago. And by the time you start identifying it, it’s usually pretty widespread, especially for a very contagious respiratory viral infection like this,” said Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch in his interview with CP24.
So far, several countries, including Canada, announced travel restrictions for southern African countries. However, Nigeria is currently not on the list of countries affected by Canada’s travel ban.
Since omicron has been designated as a Variant of Concern, WHO recommends countries to take certain measures, such as enhancing surveillance using COVID-19 testing with available methods, including rapid antigen tests.
Using such rapid diagnostic tests is an effective way to curb the spread of the omicron variant, as well as other COVID-19 variants, since it helps to identify infected individuals and reduce exposure to the virus across a variety of settings, including schools, workplaces, and public spaces.