Canada’s COVID-19 border problem: Despite India flight ban, travel restrictions not as 'solid as they should be,’ Ontario chief medical officer says

Canada’s COVID-19 border problem: Despite India flight ban, travel restrictions not as 'solid as they should be,’ Ontario chief medical officer says

Less than a week after the federal government announced a travel ban for passenger flights from India and Pakistan for at least 30 days, Ontario's top doctors warn these border restrictions may not go far enough.

At a press conference on Monday, Dr. David Williams, Ontario chief medical officer of health, indicated that there have been concerns throughout the pandemic related to importation and spread of COVID-19 from international destinations, especially now that more variants of concern have been identified.

"In Ontario especially, because we have such an international hub," Dr. Williams said. "We’re like a global touchpoint for a lot of places."

"I don’t think, in my mind, that the system is as solid as it should be. I think we’ve had many points where we see it is less than consistent in some areas."

He added that even just a small number of COVID-19 cases coming into the province can lead to rapid spread of the virus, particularly in more vulnerable communities.

"Unlike some areas, we’re not an island...we can’t close that off that easily," Dr. Williams said.

Last week, Canada's Minister of Health Patty Hajdu confirmed that 1.8 per cent of international travellers are found to be positive with COVID-19. The minister added that flights from India accounted for 20 per cent of recent air travel volumes to Canada, but more than 50 per cent of positive tests at the border were from India.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, stressed that even though quite a small percentage of people were testing positive upon arrival, it's still a risk for COVID-19 spread and suggested that taking more steps to work on "cutting down" non-essential would be beneficial.

"These cases then spread it to their household, to other people they’re around, and now we’re dealing with the vast majority of our cases are variant of concern that have originated in other countries," Dr. Yaffe said.

In an interview with Yahoo Canada, infectious disease expert Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti indicated that stopping flights from specific locations can make a temporary impact but it is possible for variants to come to Canada from other locations, aside from a the country where a variant was initially detected.

"I liken this to playing soccer goalie with 30 people shooting at you at the same time," Dr. Chakrabarti said. "You’ll recall last year, when we were so focused on China, with flights coming out of China, there were already people in the U.S. that were infected that had already been coming into Canada, we just didn't know it yet."

He added that as COVID-19 variants continue to be a concern, an approach that would useful in the longer term is to "beef up our infection prevention protocols, especially in high-risk living and work settings, and just get vaccines into people's arms as fast as possible."

How concerning is the India COVID-19 variant of interest?

India reported more than 323,000 new COVID-19 cases and 2,771 deaths in the past day as the virus continues to devastate country.

Canada is still referring to B.1.617 as a "variant of interest" as officials continue to assess concrete information about its transmissibility, if it leads to more severe illness and how it responds to COVID-19 vaccines.

Dubbed the "double mutant" variant, Dr. Chakrabarti explained that the concept of multiple mutations is not something new.

"It's a phenomenon that we've been seeing with the other variants as well," he said. "I'm not saying not attention to this, but [the] double mutation, in and of itself, isn't giving us something different in this particular variant."

"Viruses, especially when they're propagating for a while, will undoubtedly mutate, some do it faster than others. Influenza does it faster than Coronavirus but we will see sometimes that it'll change its characteristics."

He added that multiple mutations together doesn't necessarily mean it will lead to some sort of super virus.

"Sometimes when you put mutations together, that actually will weaken the virus," he said.

Dr. Chakrabarti added that the introduction of a new variant isn't the only reason for a rapid increase in cases, as India is also one of the most densely populated areas of the world.

"For example, B.1.1.7, when it came here, yes, we started seeing a huge rise in cases in our third wave...but it's not just the B.1.1.7 that's the problem, it's also the circumstances and it's the exact same thing that we saw [in] the other waves, congregate work and living spaces," he said.