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ONTARIO: Ford calls for flight ban, other measures in response to new variant

The premier's demands come after several countries, including the European Union, moved to stop flights from southern Africa over concern about the variant known as B.1.1.529

TORONTO — Ontario's premier wants Ottawa to bring in stronger border measures, including targeted flight bans and quarantine rules, in light of a new COVID-19 variant that's feared to be more transmissible. 

Doug Ford said he wants the federal government to ban flights and passengers from unspecified "countries of concern" until it’s determined that vaccines protect against the variant.

"I have contacted the federal government to express my extreme concern about the risks it poses and the need for immediate action today," he said in a Friday statement.

"Our best defense right now is stopping this variant at the border."

The premier's demands come after several countries, including the European Union, moved to stop flights from southern Africa over concern about the variant known as B.1.1.529.

The World Health Organization has cautioned against taking such actions until more information is known about the variant. Its experts are meeting Friday to assess the risks, which are largely unknown at this point.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also discouraged travel bans on countries that reported the new variant that was first detected in South Africa, arguing such bans have not had a "meaningful outcome" so far in the pandemic.

Ford said in his statement that people who arrive in Canada before a proposed ban is implemented should be tested and forced to quarantine, including people who arrive on Friday. 

A spokeswoman for Ford said the federal government should determine what countries would be affected by a flight ban.

He also called for point-of-arrival testing for all travelers arriving in Canada, and said he asked the province's top doctor and Public Health Ontario to update scenario plans for "any outcome." 

Public Health Ontario said in a statement that the new variant has not been detected in Ontario.

It said the province is tracking variants and monitoring for new ones, including B.1.1.529, and genomic sequencing is being done on 100 per cent of eligible virus samples.

Nearly all COVID-19 cases in Ontario are currently caused by the Delta variant, which drove a particularly deadly wave of infections in the spring before vaccines became available to most of the population. 

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole also called Friday for Ottawa to immediately strengthen border screening in the face of the new variant and asked the Canadian government to issue travel advisories, banning non-essential travel to and from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

The federal health and transport ministers are expectedto hold a news conference with Canada's chief public health officer Friday afternoon to discuss the new variant.

Cases of the new variant have been detected outside Africa in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium.

The novel coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with potentially risky mutations, often die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadlier, but sorting out the exact dangers takes time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press