Why tougher quarantines and screening might be better than an India flight ban at stopping COVID-19 variants

The discovery of a new — possibly more virulent — coronavirus variant in India has ignited calls to halt flights to Canada from the country. Sources have told CBC the federal government will institute a 30-day ban on passenger flights from India and Pakistan starting tonight.

But some health experts argue targeting specific countries won’t stem the tide, as numerous variants — including the strain first detected in India — have already spread across the globe.

“I do believe it’s a mistake to single out any one country or any one part of the world because these viruses have already spread into many different areas,” said Dr. Andrew Simor, an infectious disease specialist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. 

“The most effective thing is screening on arrival and in particular, quarantine on arrival.”

The federal government currently bans most non-essential foreign travellers from entering Canada, and requires those allowed to enter to take multiple COVID-19 tests and complete a 14-day quarantine.

But some critics argue the rules don’t go far enough — or provide loopholes — so Canada’s most effective move now would be to toughen up its screening and quarantine measures.

“The current travel restrictions are rather porous,” said Simor. 

India’s new variant

COVID-19 cases are surging in India, which could be fuelled by a new variant in the country — B1617 — that may be more contagious and/or more deadly because it involves two mutations of the virus

As a result, some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, have restricted travel from the country. 

That has sparked demands from some federal opposition leaders that Canada follow suit by restricting travel from India and other global hotspots. 

The demands have been fuelled by news reports tallying the number of recent flights from India to Canada carrying passengers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Out of 117 flights to Canada between April 5 and 17, the government reported that 29 flights from India carried at least one infected passenger.

But 23 Canada-bound flights from Europe and 22 Canada-bound flights from the U.S. also carried infected passengers during the same time period. Several COVID-19 variants are spreading in both those regions — including the B1617 variant first detected in India.

And B1617 has already hit Canada, with cases reported in Quebec and B.C.

“It’s already here,” said Caroline Colijn, a COVID-19 modeller at Simon Fraser University. “We sound the alarm now, but it had plenty of opportunity to get all over Asia and all over the world.” 

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, says Canada should consider a temporary global travel ban as COVID-19 variants spread. (Submitted by Raywat Deonandan)

University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan said a more prudent move would be for Canada to temporarily ban non-essential travel from across the globe. 

But that may prove difficult. Although Canada bans most foreigners from entering, Canadians can still leave and return to the country, a right the government says is rooted in Canada’s Constitution

And if the government continues to take that position, but bans flights from India, Deonandan points out that travellers could still fly between India and Canada via indirect routes. 

“Nothing prevents someone from travelling from India to a second country and arriving from there,” he said. “So [there are] loopholes.”

Still no tests for essential travellers

The government says it’s considering additional travel measures as B1617 continues its global spread, but has yet to announce concrete plans. However, Ottawa has made one thing clear: it believes its current travel rules and restrictions are effective. 

“The measures that we have put in place are limiting significantly and severely the importation of travel-related cases,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a news conference Tuesday.

But some experts say those measures need to be strengthened.

Currently, to ensure the free flow of goods and services during the pandemic, most essential workers — such as truck drivers and flight crew — are exempt from Canada’s rules requiring incoming travellers to take multiple COVID-19 tests and quarantine.

But critics argue essential workers crossing the border should at least be tested for COVID-19. 

“If you have the tools to — at the very least — do a cursory screening, in this case a rapid [COVID-19] test, why wouldn’t you do it?” said Deonandan.

Canada is considering a halt to air travel from India, especially after a variant of interest first seen in that country was detected in Canada. 2:13

Long-haul truck driver Rick McNabb of Waterloo, Ont. would also like to see routine testing for truckers.

He said he follows strict COVID-19 safety protocols, but still fell ill with COVID-19 three weeks ago. McNabb believes he got the virus during one of his weekly trips, hauling goods to Wisconsin, where he says many people don’t take the pandemic seriously.

“I would say less than 50 per cent of people wear masks,” he said. “They’re kind of in denial, they don’t believe it’s real, they don’t really care.”

In February, Ottawa said it was exploring tests for essential workers at the border, but has not yet presented concrete plans.

Hotel quarantine concerns

To help curb the spread of COVID-19 variants, the government recently mandated that air passengers entering Canada must take a COVID-19 test upon arrival and quarantine for up to three days in a designated hotel to wait for the results. 

Shortly after the rules took effect on Feb. 22, it soon became apparent that some passengers were circumventing the hotel quarantine requirement, sometimes by refusing to check into a quarantine hotel — which could result in a fine. 

Deonandan said the government needs to do a better job to make sure travellers comply with the new rules.

“Are you an incoming traveller? Yes — in that case you are going to be cordoned and sent to that bus over there that will take you to the hotel. That’s the price to travel now.”

CBC News asked the Public Health Agency of Canada about stronger enforcement for travellers required to quarantine in a hotel, but has yet to receive a reply. 

SFU’s Colijn agrees that Canada needs to be more vigilant on the home front. She said that banning flights to India seems like an easy fix, but that testing and monitoring travellers entering the country is now where Canada can best prevent them from spreading the virus.

“These other things are really hard, but they’re what we have to do if we want to prevent dangerous new variants from arriving.”

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