Traveller from Canada to Hong Kong confirmed with Omicron variant

A fully vaccinated 62-year-old male who travelled from Canada to Hong Kong is confirmed to be the second case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant identified there by authorities, according to information released by Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health.

The traveller arrived in Hong Kong from Vancouver on November 10, aboard Air Canada flight AC007, and began showing symptoms on November 17. He tested positive the next day, after originally testing negative on November 12 and 14.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs confirmed that he is not a Canadian citizen, but said they have no further details on the individual.

Health officials in Hong Kong previously stated that the traveller contracted the virus from another traveller who arrived from South Africa on flight QR818 via Qatar and was staying on the same floor at the Regal Airport Hotel.

Both guests were under compulsory quarantine after arriving from abroad and stayed in rooms that were located opposite to one another. The other traveller, a 36-year-male who arrived on November 11, was seen wearing a valved mask, which does not filter air that is breathed out by the wearer. He tested positive two days after his arrival, on November 13, but was asymptomatic.

The identical genetic sequences of the two samples suggested the cases were epidemiologically linked, officials said, prompting further investigation. Twenty five out of 87 environmental samples collected from the hotel rooms and in the common area of the corridor on that floor tested positive, with the majority of the positive samples coming from the room of the traveller from Canada and the remainder from the room of the traveller from South Africa. As an extra precaution, a dozen other guests who stayed in nearby rooms were sent to a quarantine centre for a mandatory 14 days in isolation.

Both individuals who tested positive with the new variant were fully vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech’s Comirnaty vaccine, according to Hong Kong health officials. In both cases, the two doses were administered in Hong Kong about three to three-and-a-half weeks apart in the spring.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said last Friday that officials would follow up with counterparts in Hong Kong regarding the case.

"It is most likely that this individual caught it elsewhere [than Canada], but never say never," Tam said. "We want to just follow up to see if anything that we need to trace back to in Canada from that particular traveller."

Air Canada redirected questions on whether they have reached out to any passengers on the flight to government health authorities.

“They are responsible and have the authority for handling cases involving recently arrived travellers, including determining if contact tracing is necessary,” said Peter Fitzpatrick in an email, adding that there have been no known cases of onboard transmissions, according to government officials and studies on flight transmissions.

“For our part, our highly effective safety measures remain fully in effect.”

AC007 flies out of Vancouver International Airport and typically has a connection through South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, according to flight schedules.

While it is unclear where Omicron first emerged, it was first identified by scientists in South Africa who alerted the World Health Organization last week. The UN health agency designated it as a “variant of concern” and said that preliminary evidence suggested “an increased risk of reinfection.”

The new variant is believed to be behind a recent spike in cases in parts of South Africa and has already been confirmed in travellers to a number of countries including Canada. Two cases were identified over the weekend in Ottawa in two individuals who had recently travelled from Nigeria, while Quebec also confirmed its first case on Monday.