REGINA — Public health officials in Saskatchewan are on alert for the appearance of a new strain of COVID-19, which hasn’t yet been reported present in the province.
Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said during a COVID-19 response update on Nov. 30 that public health is aware of the newly identified South African strain of the virus causing global concern.
The new B.1.1.529 variant, dubbed the Omicron strain by scientists, was first discovered approximately two weeks ago in South Africa.
It has since been reported in Hong Kong, Australia, western Europe and North America — including five cases confirmed in Canada.
The Omicron strain has been identified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern, although no data currently shows that it is more transmissible or dangerous than previous strains.
Shahab said that public health is keeping a close eye on the new variant, in collaboration with the federal government and the Saskatchewan Public Health Safety Agency.
As of now, Shahab confirmed that no cases of the Omicron variant have yet been detected in Saskatchewan.
Public health will be following up with all travellers arriving in the province from southern African regions within the last two weeks, said Shahab.
A total of 40 such international travellers are currently being monitored by public health, isolating in mandatory quarantine while awaiting test results.
“We expect most, if not all, to be negative,” said Shahab. “But the public health laboratory is ready to quickly do snip testing and whole genome sequencing in case of a positive test result, to see if it's a Delta strain or the Omicron strain.”
Shahab said he feels confident that the current monitoring and testing plan will detect and contain the variant, should it appear in Saskatchewan via travel-related transmission.
“It is a rapidly evolving situation,” said Shahab, adding that there have been overseas cases of community transmission.
Shahab said that while the Omicron variant does pose a concern for public health, officials cannot comment with more detail on how the strain may affect transmission in Saskatchewan.
“As with any variant of concern, we will wait for further information to emerge from the countries where it is being detected,” said Shahab.
Initial concerns that vaccinations may be less effective against the new strain are preliminary, said Shahab, and more information is needed to determine whether or not that is true.
“Vaccine manufacturers are conducting their own trials, as are many governments, especially in parts of the world where there’s high Omicron transmission,” said Shahab. “It's difficult to say anything until we have that information.”
Shahab noted that both the Alpha and Delta variants appeared in Saskatchewan, with the Delta strain becoming more predominant over other variants as transmission occurred, and public health adjusted its safety advisories as those strains travelled as well.
Shahab would not say whether the province will be expanding the booster program in response to the potential arrival of the Omicron variant, but did indicate it is in discussion.
He also reiterated that virus transmission relies on gaps in COVID-19 vaccination, both here in the province and worldwide.
“The lower the case numbers are, the lower our breakthrough cases will be,” said Shahab. “And I must say that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and that applies to pockets of undervaccinated communities.”