'Not something to play around with': Experts assessing potential impact of Omicron variant

As jurisdictions worldwide take precautions to prevent the spread of the new Omicron variant, health experts are scrambling to figure out much of an impact it could have on Alberta.

The World Health Organization (WHO) designated B.1.1.529 a variant of concern on Friday, naming it Omicron. The WHO says the first cases were reported from South Africa last week, identified cases are now being reported in Belgium, Botswana, Israel, and Hong Kong. 

As of publication, no confirmed cases of the newest COVID-19 variant were reported in Canada. Yet, some experts believe it is only a matter of time.

"With such an interconnected world and travellers going everywhere, it's very, very hard to keep a variant just in one country," said Sarah Otto, University of British Columbia evolutionary biologist.

Otto works with the B.C. COVID-19 modelling team and has studied variants throughout the pandemic.

"This variant is coming, and we don't know what it brings," Otto told CTV News. "It has an uncharacteristically large number of mutations. It's actually not very closely related to any of the other variants."

According to Otto, what health officials know so far is that the variant appears to spread quickly.

"We're seeing now that Omicron is even able to spread and outcompete Delta really quickly," she said. "Something like twice the growth rate of Delta."

Ottawa announced it would ban the entry of all foreign nationals who travelled through southern Africa in the 14 days.

The travel ban covers seven countries, including South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.

On Friday, Dr. Threresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said that laboratories across Canada have been alerted to the new variant and are searching for any "possible detections." Alberta's top doctor, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, reassured Albertans that genetic sequencing in the province could detect mutations of COVID-19, including Omicron.

"We continue to work with our partners in Canada and across the world to monitor emerging variants and will make any adjustments necessary to protect the health and safety of all Albertans," Hinshaw said in a social media post on Friday.

I would like to address reports of a new variant that was detected in South Africa and other countries. Early evidence shows an increased number of mutations and increased transmissibility. The federal government announced new travel restrictions in light of this variant. (1/4)

— Dr. Deena Hinshaw (@CMOH_Alberta) November 26, 2021

While there have been some cases of Omicron identified in vaccinated individuals elsewhere, Otto says vaccinated individuals will likely still have a decreased chance of severe outcomes.

"I think those highly vaccinated communities have a lot of buffers," she added. "Omicron might be able to get in and still not spread in those highly vaccinated communities. But where it's going to spread like wildfire are the unvaccinated communities."

'GET VACCINATED'

Dr. Michael Houghton, a University of Alberta professor and Nobel laureate in medicine, told CTV News how labs across the globe are racing to learn more about the variant.

"Further experiments are underway around the world, and more information will be available in a couple of weeks," Houghton said.

"In the meanwhile, early prudence is justified by following pre-existing guidelines of getting vaccinated, wearing face masks, and minimizing direct social interactions," he said.

Otto echoed the advice, adding that now is the best time to get booster vaccine doses, for those eligible to get it.

"This is not something to play around with," Otto said. "Protect yourself, protect your friends, protect your neighbours.

"Get vaccinated."

With files from CTVNews.ca's Hannah Jackson