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Experts question Ottawa’s negative COVID-19 test for air travellers from China

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COVID-19 test for travellers from China

Canada’s requirement of a negative COVID-19 test of travellers from China will not help in preventing new variants or the spread of the virus, say experts.

Kerry Bowman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, called the requirement “absolutely a political move, and not based on science at this point.”

“This isn’t the early days of the pandemic,” he said. “So, I do think it’s largely political.”

The federal government said Saturday that people coming from China, Hong Kong and Macao will have to test negative for COVID-19 before leaving for Canada.

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The requirement will apply to all air travellers aged two and older from the three countries and will begin on Jan. 5, it said.

China’s reversal from strict COVID-19 control measures has caused widespread infection in that country, although there is not much known about what various Omicron variants are in circulation, said Bowman, who teaches bioethics and global health.

“I don’t think it’s a great idea. I don’t think it makes us safer. On the surface of it, looks like governments are being proactive and sensitive and protecting their citizens,” he said.

“But it’s pretty clear that point of entry screening is not very effective at all. Often people can test positive days and weeks later.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, associate professor at University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, said it’s not entirely clear what the policy’s goals are, but such measures have not helped.

“We know from the past that very focused and targeted travel measures such as this don’t do much to prevent the spread of COVID, either by importing COVID to Canada, or by the threat of variants of concern in Canada,” he said.

Bogoch said it would have helped if China had been transparent with their COVID-19 data, variants, vaccines and spread.

“But let’s not pretend that requiring travellers from China to have a negative PCR test before coming to Canada will have any impact on the Canadian experience with COVID-19,” he said. “It won’t.”

Colin Furness, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information, said the situation regarding the travel requirement is complicated.

“This is political as well as social as well as public health,” he said. “It is likely to be perceived as political. It is likely to be perceived as racist. Those are obviously not helpful things.”

But the government should be concerned about new variants that may come out of China, he said.

Caroline Colijn, a mathematics professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said testing requirements can probably reduce the rate of importation.

“If there’s a new variant, or just high levels of COVID in certain places, the rate of direct introduction from those places will probably be somewhat reduced by requiring negative tests, but it won’t completely prevent importation,” said Colijn, who is a Canada 150 Research Chair.

Isolating or quarantining travellers could help reduce the likelihood that chains of transmission get established after travel, she said.

“So, requiring negative tests will just buy us a little bit of time.”

Governments and scientists have to face the possibility that there could be “a more severe, more immune invasive, more transmissible or more dangerous variant of this virus” and should draw up plans on next steps, she said.

While not a popular view, Furness said it would be much more effective if all governments required negative COVID-19 tests and vaccinations on all flights.

“Let’s be clear,” he said. “COVID is everywhere. COVID is all over the place. So these sorts of measures that three years ago might have been enormously effective at limiting spread, it isn’t going to do very much now.”

Research has shown how the virus spreads through human mobility, which means that the next variant of the virus may not even emerge from China, and even if it did, it could land in Canada from other indirect routes, Bogoch said.

Canada hasn’t been able to prevent variants as seen with Alpha, which emerged in the United Kingdom, Delta that was first discovered in India and Omicron, which arose in southern Africa, he said.

“So just requiring a negative PCR test from Chinese travellers, from a science and medical standpoint, will not have much impact for Canada,” he said.

“And that’s just unfortunately the way it is. What we can do is take measures to help reduce the burden of COVID in Canada, but we’re not going to stop the importation of this infection.”

A more effective measure, Bowman said, would be testing wastewater from airplanes and airports to check for the viral load and mutations.

Vancouver International Airport said Saturday it would expand its wastewater testing pilot program.

One of the variants, XBB.1.5, causing concern and spreading rapidly is already in North America, Bowman said.

“It’s so important that we stay evidence based,” he said.

“I think in the years ahead when this story is told, when we have some objectivity, which I don’t think any of us really have, including me — when we’re really away from this — I think when we look at the big picture globally, we’re going to see that we did a lot of things that were much more political than evidence based.”

China hasn’t been using mRNA shots unlike most of the west, which means variants out of that country may be more contagious, but also susceptible to the vaccines in this part of the world, Furness said.

“That’s plausible. But again, it’s all speculation.”

Bogoch said the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to mutate.

Most people in Canada have some form of immunity through a combination of vaccines and previous infections, he added.

Across the world, he said it would help people if there was more sequencing of data that would help identify and understand emerging variants.

“There’s unfortunately, less and less sequencing happening.”

But people, especially the elderly and those who have other health conditions, should get boosted to keep safe, he said. Masking in indoor settings can also reduce the probability of infection.

“If we look ahead at the foreseeable future, we’ll see waxing and waning of COVID-19 in the community. We’ll have periods of time where it’s higher, we’ll have periods of time where it’s lower just like we’ve seen over the past two years,” Bogoch said.

“And hopefully, future waves of COVID will be less and less impactful as we move forward.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 1, 2023.

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UPEI students offered $1,500 to leave residence during Canada Games

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Some UPEI students are earning extra money during the mid-semester break this year, simply by packing up and leaving campus.

The 2023 Canada Winter Games Host Society offered $1,500 each to students living in Andrew Hall if they give up their residence rooms to make space for arriving athletes.

The students have to leave a few days before the break starts, on Feb. 17, and can return March 7. They also had to give up their meal plan for the duration.

Many athletes are staying at UPEI’s new 260-bed residence, built to meet accommodation requirements for the Games’ temporary athlete village.

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But Wayne Carew, chair of the Games, said there are 120 more athletes coming than originally planned.

A portrait of a man standing outside, wearing a jacket with the Canada Winter Games logo.
Organizers want the athletes all to stay on the UPEI campus so they can have ‘the experience of a lifetime,’ says Wayne Carew, chair of the 2023 Canada Winter Games Host Society. (Tony Davis/CBC)

“We ended up getting 44 rooms [in Andrew Hall] and that’s great,” said Carew.

He said the athletes staying at UPEI “are going to have a wild experience on the campus of the beautiful University of Prince Edward Island.”

Carew said the costs of doing this are a “lot cheaper” than arranging accommodations elsewhere. But he said the main reason is to provide all athletes the same, “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.

“Where they live, the food and the camaraderie and the experience of a lifetime: that’s what they’ll remember in 20 years’ time about P.E.I.,” he said.

‘Pretty good deal’

Some students were eager to take the organizers up on their offer.

“I’m going away to Florida during the two-week break anyways. So I was like, ‘May as well let them use my room then,'” said Hannah Somers.

Portrait of a man in a toque and a grey sweater standing in front of a residence hall.
UPEI student Benji Dueck is moving in with a friend during the Canada Games so he can get the $1,500 offer. (Tony Davis/CBC)

“It’s $1,500. Pretty nice,” said Benji Dueck, who agreed to vacate the room with his roommate.  “We’re moving out, living with a friend in the city. So, sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”

As part of the agreement, the students had to clear out their rooms. Canada Games organizers made arrangements so students could store their belongings.

But not all students thought it was a good deal.

Portrait of a woman in a black down jacket standing in front of a residence hall.
UPEI student Maria de Torres won’t be leaving residence during the Canada Games. ‘It’s just too hard to pack up. It’s just too hectic,’ she says. (Tony Davis/CBC)

“I’m not giving up my spot in Andrew Hall for $1,500,” said Maria de Torres. “It’s just too hard to pack up. It’s just too hectic. And since I’m an international student, I got a lot [of things] right now.”

Shelby Dyment is also staying in Andrew Hall. Dyment said she and her roommate are working as residence life assistants during the mid-semester break and she’s also doing directed study, so she has to stay on campus.

“There’s a lot of people doing it. It’s just for our situation it just wasn’t working for what we were doing,” she said.

In a statement, UPEI said that enough students had accepted the offer to host all the athletes.

It said the host society made all the arrangements with the students, including paying for their incentives and arranging for storage.

Organizers expect about 3,600 athletes, coaches and officials to participate in the Games. The event will run from Feb. 18 to March 5.

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Germany won't be a 'party to the war' amid tanks exports to Ukraine: Ambassador – CTV News

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The German ambassador to Canada says Germany will not become “a party to the conflict” in Ukraine, despite it and several other countries announcing they’ll answer President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pleas for tanks, possibly increasing the risk of Russian escalation.

Sabine Sparwasser said it’s a “real priority” for Germany to support Ukraine, but that it’s important to be in “lockstep” coordination with other allied countries.

“There is a clear line for Germany,” she told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos, in an interview airing Sunday. “We do want not want to be a party to the conflict.”

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“We want to support, we want to do everything we can, but we, and NATO, do not want to be a party to the war,” she also said. “That’s I think, the line we’re trying to follow.”

Defence Minister Anita Anand announced this week Canada will send four Leopard 2 battle tanks — with the possibility of more in the future — to Ukraine, along with Canadian Armed Forces members to train Ukrainian soldiers on how to use them.

Canada first needed permission from Berlin to re-export any of its 82 German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. After a meeting of 50 defence leaders in Germany earlier this month, it was unclear whether Germany would give the green light.

But following what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called “intensive consultations,” Germany announced on Jan. 25 it would send tanks to Ukraine, and the following day, Canada followed suit. It is now joining several other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland, which are sending several dozen tanks to Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week the tanks would allow Ukraine to “significantly strengthen their combat capabilities.”

“It demonstrates also the unit and the resolve of NATO allies in partners in providing support to Ukraine,” he said.

Meanwhile Sparwasser said Germany is “walking that fine line” of avoiding steps that could prompt escalation from Russia, while supporting Ukraine, and staying out of the war themselves.

“I think it’s very important to see that Germany is very determined and has a real priority in supporting Ukraine in its struggle for freedom and sovereignty,” Sparwasser said. “But we also put a high priority on going it together with our friends and allies.”

Sparwasser said despite warnings from Russia that sending tanks to Ukraine will cause an escalation, Germany is within international law — specifically Article 51 of the United Nations Charter — to provide support to Ukraine.

“Ukraine is under attack has the right to self defence, and other nations can come in and provide Ukraine with the means to defend itself,” Sparwasser said. “So in international law terms, this is a very clear cut case.”

She added that considering “Russia doesn’t respect international law,” it’s a more impactful deterrent to Russia, ahead of an expected spring offensive, to see several countries come together in support of Ukraine.

With files from the Associated Press

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COVID: Canada retaining Evusheld – CTV News

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While Health Canada says it is “aware” of the U.S. decision to withdraw the emergency use of Evusheld, a drug by AstraZeneca used to help prevent COVID-19 infection— the agency is maintaining its approval, citing the differences in variant circulation between Canada and the U.S.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Jan. 26 that its emergency use authorization of the drug was pulled due to its inefficacy in treating “certain” COVID-19 variants.

The FDA stated in a release on its website that as the XBB.1.5. variant, nicknamed “Kraken”, is making up the majority of cases in the country, the use of Evusheld is “not expected to provide protection” and therefore not worth exposing the public to possible side effects of the drug, like allergic reactions.

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In an email to CTVNews.ca, Health Canada said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled the drug as the main variant of concern in the U.S. is XBB.1.5.

“Dominant variants in the [U.S.] may be different from those circulating in Canada,” the federal agency said in an email. “The most recent epidemiological data in Canada (as of January 1, 2023) indicate that BA.5 (Omicron) subvariants continue to account for more than 89 per cent of reported cases.”

On Jan. 6 the FDA said in press release that certain variants are not neutralized by Evusheld and cautioned people who are exposed to XBB.1.5. On Jan. 26, the FDA then updated its website by saying it would be limiting the use of Evusheld.

“Evusheld is not currently authorized for use in the U.S. until further notice by the Agency,” the FDA website states.

On Jan. 17, Health Canada issued a “risk communication” on Evusheld, explaining how it may not be effective against certain Omicron subvariants when used as a preventative measure or treatment for COVID-19.

“Decisions regarding the use of EVUSHELD should take into consideration what is known about the characteristics of the circulating COVID-19 variants, including geographical prevalence and individual exposure,” Health Canada said in an email.

Health Canada says Evusheld does neutralize against Omicron subvariant BA.2, which according to the agency, is the dominant variant in many communities in Canada.

The drug was introduced for prevention measures specifically for people who have weaker immune systems and are unlikely to be protected by a COVID-19 vaccine. It can only be given to people 12 years and older.

“EVUSHELD is not a substitute for vaccination in individuals for whom COVID-19 vaccination is recommended,” the agency’s website reads.

Health Canada says no drug, including Evusheld, is a substitute for vaccination.

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