Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reports 927 cases; WHO names new highly infectious

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

6:34 p.m. Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world raced Friday to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fueled relentless waves of infection on nearly every continent, The Associated Press reports.

A World Health Organization (WHO) panel named the variant “Omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant Delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States, according to AP.

“It seems to spread rapidly,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”

Omicron’s actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

In response to the variant’s discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.

The White House said the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. Biden said that means “no travel” to or from the designated countries except for returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents who test negative.

Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than five million people around the globe.

Omicron has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as in southern Africa.

There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant Omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.

Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, such as the Beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.

Members of the 27-nation EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.

Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel restrictions Friday, some within hours of learning of the variant.

Omicron has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert. Although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “we don’t know that for sure right now,” he told CNN.

Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Fewer than six per cent of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses.”

The U.S. restrictions will apply to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The White House suggested the restrictions will mirror an earlier pandemic policy that banned entry of any foreigners who had traveled over the previous two weeks in the designated regions.

The U.K. banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and announced that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

Canada banned the entry of all foreigners who have traveled to southern Africa in the last two weeks.

3:31 p.m. Moderna says it is stepping up its efforts to target the new Omicron variant that has emerged in southern Africa.

Moderna says the new variant includes mutations seen in the Delta variant, which are believed to increase transmissibility and mutations seen in the Beta and Delta variants, which are thought to promote immune escape.

The combination of mutations represents a significant potential risk to accelerate the waning of natural and vaccine-induced immunity, Moderna said.

A booster dose of an authorized vaccine represents the only currently available strategy for boosting waning immunity, Moderna said.

The company is working rapidly to test the ability of its current vaccine dose to neutralize the Omicron variant and data is expected in the coming weeks.

Moderna’s says its strategy includes three levels of response should the currently authorized booster dose prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant.

The company says it has already tested a higher dose booster in healthy adults. It is working to determine if the higher dose provides superior neutralizing protection against Omicron.

It is already studying two booster candidates in the clinic designed to anticipate mutations such as those that have emerged in the Omicron variant. The first includes several mutations present in the new variant that were also present in the Beta variant. The second candidate includes many of the mutations present in the Omicron variant that were also present in the Beta and Delta variants.

The company says it will rapidly expand testing to determine if these candidates are able to provide superior neutralizing protection against Omicron.

Moderna says it will rapidly advance an Omicron-specific booster candidate.

The company says it can advance new candidates to clinical testing in 60 days to 90 days.

3:03 p.m. The Ontario COVID-19 Genomic Network is continuing to track variants currently being seen in Ontario and is actively monitoring for new and emerging variants, including the B.1.1.529 (Omicron) variant, the Ministry of Health said in reply to questions from the Toronto Star. At present, the network is conducting genomic sequencing on all eligible COVID-19-positive samples.

At this time, the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant, emerging in South Africa, has not been detected in Ontario, the Ministry said.

As of Nov. 12, 2021, routine VOC (variant of concern) PCR testing of positive COVID-19 samples discontinued, it added.

At present, more than 99 per cent, it continued of sequenced samples identify the Delta variant.

With these very high proportions, routine variant testing via PCR provided limited value, as the test does not identify the specific variant.

However, genome sequencing does identify the variant and the presence of new variants in Ontario, which is important to inform the public health response, the Ministry said in its reply to the Star.

Ontario has a robust surveillance system through its whole genome-sequencing program, for monitoring current variants circulating in Ontario and for detecting and identifying new and emerging variants, the Ministry said.

The best source of information for variants detected in Ontario can be found on PHO’s SARS-CoV-2 Whole Genome Sequencing in Ontario epidemiological report, which is updated each week, it added.

In light of the WHO classification of the new VOC (variant of concern) Omicron, the Ontario COVID-19 Genomic Network (which includes the labs at PHO, Sick Kids, Kingston General Hospital, Shared Labs and Hamilton Health Sciences) and the Provincial COVID-19 Diagnostic Network, led by Ontario Health, are planning for the re-introduction of the VOC PCR testing to screen for it.

The VOC screen PCR test would be conducted on all eligible COVID-19 positive samples, the Ministry said. Results from this testing will help to determine next steps. Over the weekend, PHO will also screen all travel-related, positive COVID-19 samples that were submitted this month.

2:45 p.m. Police in Vancouver say a man convicted of breaking COVID-19 restrictions earlier this year has been sentenced to jail after pleading guilty to…

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