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B.C. reports first case of Omicron variant

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province is reporting its first case of the new variant.
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B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

Health officials have detected the first case of the Omicron variant in British Columbia. 

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced in a press briefing on Tuesday (Nov. 30) that the first case of the new coronavirus variant was detected in an individual in the Fraser Health region who travelled from Nigeria. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada has identified 204 people in B.C. who recently visited the affected areas and health officials have connected "with all of these individuals over the past few days," she said. 

"We have a robust program here in B.C. and have had [one] from the very beginning," added Henry. "Using whole-genome sequencing to help us understand what strains are transmitting to whom. We've been using them for helping us identify transmission outbreaks."

While B.C. hasn't conducted whole-genome sequencing on every positive case in the province, it is done in any cases where individuals test positive after travelling internationally, noted Henry. "That is how we detected our first case today.

"We did look back at all of the full genome sequences that we have, and this process helps us understand how the virus has evolved," she said. "And we can be confident that we're not seeing widespread transmission of this variant in B.C. yet."

Henry emphasized that "concerning mutations"  can arise in parts of the world where vaccination is low and then "spread rapidly." 

There is some evidence that suggests it may be more transmissible than other variants, but much is still unknown about Omicron. It will take health officials "some weeks" to gather sufficient data to understand who is being infected and the severity of illness that it causes, she added. 

"While vaccination doesn't prevent 100 per cent of infections, we have seen how important it is at protecting people from more severe illness, particularly with the Delta variant."

The new variant, dubbed Omicron, was first detected in South Africa and coincided with a steep rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in that region in recent weeks, according to the World Health Organization.

The Government of Hong Kong has also announced that it is banning non-residents from several countries including Canada to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant.