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Special Report: Is the Amazon near a tipping point? Three real-world studies are ominous

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Gertrudes Freire and her family came to the great forest in search of land and rain. They found both in abundance on that day half a century ago, but the green wilds of the southwestern Amazon would prove tough to tame.

When they reached the settlement of Ouro Preto do Oeste in 1971, it was little more than a lonely rubber-tapper outpost hugging the single main road that ran through the jungle like a red dust scar.

Sitting on the porch of the family farmhouse in the sweltering heat of the Amazon dry season, Gertrudes, now 79 with neat gray hair tucked behind her ears and a smile that shows half a dozen stubborn teeth, recalls the hardship and hope.

Her children remember the fear. Fear of forest jaguars, indigenous tribes and the mythological Curupira: a creature with backward-turned feet who misleads unwelcome visitors to leave them lost among the trees.

The family carved their home from the forest. They built their walls from the tough trunks of the cashapona tree and thatched a leaky roof from the broad palms of the babassu. There was no electricity, and some days the only food was foraged Brazil nuts. At night, in hungry darkness they would listen to the cascading rain. Life was damp.

Until it wasn’t.

Near the Freire home, there was a stream so wide that the children – aged between 5 and 12 when they arrived – would dare each other to reach the other side. They called it Jaguar’s Creek. Now it’s not a meter wide and can be cleared with a single step.

The loss of such streams, and the wider water problems they are a part of, fill scientists with foreboding.

Covering an area roughly the size of the contiguous United States and accounting for more than half of the world’s rainforest, the Amazon exerts power over the carbon cycle like no other terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. The tree loss from an extremely dry year in 2005, for example, released an additional quantity of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere equivalent to the annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined, according to a 2009 study published in Science magazine.

As more and more of the forest is cut down, researchers say the loss of canopy risks hitting a limit – a tipping point – after which the forest and local climate will have changed so radically as to trigger the death of the Amazon as rainforest. In its place would grow a shorter, drier forest or savannah.

The consequences for biodiversity and climate change would be devastating, extinguishing thousands of species and releasing such a colossal quantity of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it would sabotage attempts to limit global climate change.

The Amazon tipping point would mark a final shift in the rainforest’s ability to sustain itself, an inflection point after which the trees can no longer feed traversing clouds with enough moisture to create the quantities of rain required to survive.

Climate models have foreseen other so-called tipping points disrupting Earth’s long-balanced systems, for example warming that causes Siberian permafrost to thaw and release huge amounts of emissions, or Greenland’s Ice Sheet melting at such a rate that annual snowfall can no longer make up for the loss.

Exactly where that point is in the Amazon, science is not yet decided. Some researchers argue that current modeling isn’t sophisticated enough to predict such a moment at all. But evidence is mounting that in certain areas, localized iterations of the tipping point may already be happening.

Reuters has tracked three extended experiences of the Amazon to give a real-world view of degradation once only predicted by computer simulations.

A family that has farmed this once-lush part of rainforest for almost 50 years. A scientist couple who have monitored thousands of individual trees for decades. And an atmospheric chemist who has collected air samples from far above the canopy for years. Their perspectives reveal the long-term impact of deforestation: on rainfall, on the remaining forest and on global emissions. Taken together, they show the dangerous extent of the changes wrought on the world’s largest rainforest, and a possible glimpse of things to come.

Even as science learns more about the far-reaching impact of destruction that began many years or even decades ago, deforestation has surged under President Jair Bolsonaro, who supports further opening the Amazon for mining and agriculture. Last year, an area larger than Lebanon was cut from the rainforest, and though preliminary data for 2021 points to a slight year-on-year decline, deforestation remains at a level not seen in Brazil since 2008.

Ecologist Paulo Brando, one of the leading scientists studying the changing health of the Amazon rainforest, sums it up: “There’s a limit to how much shit the system can take.”

LAND OF THIRST

Year after year, the Freire family hacked and sawed farther into their patch of forest on Brazil’s western frontier.

In 1976, after clearing a couple of hectares and getting permission to use some of their neighbor’s pasture too, they invested in 10 heifer calves and a bull – the start of a dairy business that would over the years grow into a successful herd of about 400 head.

But a fear of drought haunted their work. They had come from the Vale do Jequitinhonha, 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) to the east, where decades of slash-and-burn agriculture had dried and degraded the land, plunging its people into poverty. The semi-arid strip became notorious as the “Valley of Misery.” Even while water was plentiful, they sensed the same could happen in their new home.

Soil erosion, like that which plagued the Vale do Jequitinhonha, often follows rapid and chaotic agricultural expansion. Land stripped of native vegetation, especially when transformed into pasture and pounded hard by grazing cattle, loses ability to retain water in soil and foliage. Rain runs off the altered surface in sudden surges, dragging topsoil into streams and rivers that then clog and dry.

Brazil is blessed with the largest freshwater reserves in the world. But the relentless rise of one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses combined with changes in global climate are helping to drive a loss of this vital resource. Data released this year by MapBiomas, a collaboration between universities, nonprofit groups and technology companies, found Brazil lost 15% of its surface water in the three decades prior to 2020.

For the Freires, the last bits of doubt about the drying of the land seeped away on a parched day in 1991. A cowhand told Gertrudes the cattle were so thirsty, they were nuzzling the bottom of dried-out springs, sucking the sand in search of moisture.

She acted swiftly and put in a complex system of pipes and pumps to draw water for the cattle from springs that had not yet gone dry.

Controversially, she began reforesting too. Gertrudes had little idea of what she was doing but trusted her instincts, sharpened by years of drought in the homeland she’d abandoned.

Her neighbors – and husband – thought she was crazy as she planted trees around water sources and along streams and vowed that the last remaining patch of virgin forest, at the far end of the property, should remain intact.

Her words weren’t always heeded. “I came back from one short trip away and my husband had cleared another patch” for pasture, she remembers, shaking her head.

Gertrudes sensed that rainfall was changing too.

Several scientific studies have found the same. Because tropical forests influence rainfall, deforestation can change their pattern. One influential 2011 paper looking at 30 years of precipitation data found that the onset of rains in Rondonia state, where the family lives, had been delayed by up to 18 days.

Research since then has backed up this trend. A major report this year, which brought together around 200 scientists, said available data pointed to a dry season that “has expanded by about one month in the southern Amazon region since the middle 1970’s.”

Antonio Deuseminio, an agroecologist with decades of experience in the rainforest, is helping farmers replant trees and bring water back to their properties. He works for a subdivision of the Ministry of Agriculture focused on cacao, which he says has the oldest weather data in the area. Although total rainfall hasn’t changed significantly in Ouro Preto do Oeste, the dry season has gotten longer and drier, Deuseminio says. For agriculture this is a serious problem, because crops and grasses don’t have long enough roots to find water when there’s no rain.

The drier climate makes reforesting harder too. Twenty years ago, rainforest species could be planted straight into the bare soil. Deuseminio says he must now first plant drought-resistant trees, and only once these have grown enough to provide shade and improve the soil, after five years or so, can he follow up with classic Amazon species. Rainforest saplings now struggle to survive, he says, in this part of the Amazon.

DEATH ON THE BORDER

Decades of farming have made the Freires sensitive to the changing rains. But to the untrained eye, the slow shifts in surviving forests – like the one at the end of the family’s farm – are harder to see. Detecting these changes can require years of methodical study, sweaty painstaking work, with tape measures and walking boots and notebooks.

Ecologists Ben Hur Marimon Jr. and Beatriz Marimon have spent so long in their forest plots that they’ve befriended many of the trees. They’re saddened by those they have lost over the years. Of late, they are losing more and more.

The couple conduct research at the local campus of the Mato Grosso State University in Nova Xavantina, a soy town of 20,000 people located about 1,200 kilometers east from the Freire farmhouse. The surrounding area is a biome borderland, an in-between space where the Cerrado savannah transitions into the Amazon rainforest. The trees that remain, they say, offer a vision of the future.

“This is tomorrow, today,” Beatriz says, crunching through a dry patch of forest on the edge of town. Ben Hur finishes the thought. “This is the border of the Amazon, its protective wall, and it’s dying.”

If the tipping point marks the irreversible march of savannah over rainforest, scientists predict the process would first occur in forests where savannah and rainforest are already intertwined.

Ben Hur is 58, with a neatly trimmed white beard and frayed walking boots – a chewed victim of their dog. Beatriz, 55, has long gray hair tied back in a practical ponytail. The couple met in the 1980s while studying forest engineering in the state capital, Cuiaba. The two have basically worked together ever since. “He likes to talk; I like to do,” jokes Beatriz.

To monitor the forests, the couple tag trees of varying sizes and species across their plots with bits of metal that look like military dog tags. They return at regular intervals – anything from three months to three years – and measure tree circumference, height and carbon dioxide respiration. Trees that haven’t made it are added to a list of the dead.

Rainforests recycle vast quantities of water by returning rainfall to the sky through soil evaporation and plant transpiration, by which water absorbed in the roots is released via a plant’s leaves. In the Amazon, moisture that comes off the Atlantic Ocean is transported for thousands of miles across the South American continent, falling as rain and rising again as vapor as many as seven times until it hits the mountain wall of the Andes. On hot days, after a downpour, the forest can look like it’s steaming.

But large-scale deforestation disrupts this process, reducing the number of trees to such an extent that precipitation levels fall or become more concentrated over a shorter wet season. In some parts of wide-ranging Nova Xavantina over the past 30 years, Ben Hur says, rainfall has fallen by as much as 30%.

As precipitation changes, streams and sources disappear, and the remaining forest turns drier. Local temperatures also increase – particularly on edges where forest and farmland meet. Those vast flat agricultural clearings increase the strength of winds, which can rip through woodland and tear down the tallest, oldest trees.

The drier forest is also more vulnerable to fire, which is still widely used for clearing farmland here. As more trees die – from wind, drought and fire – their deaths increase the likelihood of such extreme weather in the future, creating a deadly feedback loop.

Early experiments that mimicked extreme drought in the Amazon had led scientists to think the drier climate would kill older trees first, but what Ben Hur and Beatriz have found is the opposite. With longer roots, the largest trees are usually the most resilient – at least to drought. Instead, says Ben Hur, pointing to the brown leaves of a nearby plant, it’s the saplings that die. The forest loses its future.

For Ben Hur and Beatriz, the degrading forests around Nova Xavantina demonstrate that the tipping point may already be happening there on a local level. The major question remains whether this same process could occur on a huge scale over entire swaths of the Amazon basin – and if so, when?

Celebrated Brazilian climatologist Carlos Nobre, who has helped popularize the idea of the tipping point over the past decade, puts the precipice at between 20% and 25% deforestation of the original Amazon canopy. We are currently at about 17%, according to the major report with 200 scientists published this year. Nobre believes we could see mass dieback across eastern, southern and central Amazonia within as little as 15 years.

Others aren’t so sure.

Marina Hirota, an earth system scientist who worked on models before switching to field work, says current simulations oversimplify the diverse vegetation, soil type and topography found across the Amazon basin. In her view, there’s not yet enough evidence to say where the tipping point is or even if such a single threshold exists for sure. The models need to be improved first, she says.

Hirota considers it more likely that deforestation would trigger multiple smaller tipping points in different locations across the Amazon, similar to what Ben Hur and Beatriz have seen in Nova Xavantina.

But many scientists think putting a single number on the tipping point is still important as a clarion call, even if it’s too complex to currently prove. Once you’re able to prove it, ecologist Brando argues, it will already be too late.

“We know there’s a cliff out there, and so even if we’re not exactly sure where it is, we need to slow down,” Brando says. “Instead, we’re rushing towards it with our eyes closed.”

VIEW FROM ABOVE

In the decades that Ben Hur and Beatriz were listing trees and wrapping them with tape measures, the atmospheric chemist Luciana Gatti was mastering how to catch carbon dioxide from the skies.

While the view from the ground found trees struggling under hotter and drier temperatures, Gatti wanted to understand what these changes meant for the Amazon’s role in global climate change.

Gatti, 61, first specialized in reactive gases and began her career at Brazil’s Nuclear and Energy Research Institute. After the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, she turned to the Amazon, joining a crop of home-bred scientific talent striving for a bigger Brazilian role in global climate research. She now works for INPE, Brazil’s space research agency, where her narrow office is cluttered with family photographs and lanyards from past conferences. On her desk sits a stress ball shaped like planet Earth.

Since the Industrial Revolution, scientists estimate that roughly a quarter of all fossil fuel emissions have been absorbed by forests and other land vegetation and soils, chief among them the Amazon.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as mass human migration to the Amazon was just beginning, the rainforest drew down some 500 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year, more than the current annual emissions of Germany, Britain, Italy and France combined. Photosynthesis by the forests’ billions of trees, using carbon dioxide to live and grow, served as a vital buffer against climate change.

As migration increased and more of the Amazon was cleared for agriculture, scientists knew the forest’s ability to suck in carbon would be hit. But no one knew quite how much.

To try and get an answer, Gatti squeezed into a roaring single-engine four-seater plane armed with a padded suitcase packed with glass flasks. From up over the canopy, she could sometimes see the scale of destruction, the gray smoke billowing from burning trees and the yellow patches of earth shorn of the forest green.

Gatti’s earliest air samples date back to 2000, from a single point in the eastern Amazon. But she found the data too narrow and volatile to give a picture of the carbon balance for the whole basin, so over the following years she expanded the work, training teams and contracting light aircraft to fill flasks of forest air from four parts of the Amazon: Santarem and Alta Floresta in the east and Tefe and Rio Branco in the west.

Since then, the aircraft have taken more than 600 vertical profiles – a series of samples taken at different altitudes over a given spot. At one point Gatti doubted her results. She grew depressed. The data didn’t make sense. It couldn’t be true. It showed the southeastern Amazon was releasing more carbon that it was absorbing, even in rainy years when scientists had expected the forest to be in better health. It meant a part of the rainforest was no longer helping to slow climate change, but adding to the emissions driving it.

She changed her methodology. Changed it again. And again. In total, she went through seven methodologies before eventually accepting what had seemed impossible. The southeastern Amazon is not only a net producer of carbon, but even when you strip out the fires, the forest alone – or the non-fire net biome exchange – is a carbon source. Scientists widely regard the results, recently published in Nature, as the most definitive so far on the changing carbon fluxes of the rainforest.

The western part of the Amazon, protected by its remoteness, is in better health and can still absorb substantial amounts of carbon, the study shows. But it’s not enough to compensate for the polluting east, where ranching and soy farming have cut deep into the rainforest. The so-called lungs of the Earth are coughing up smoke. “We are losing the southeastern part of the forest,” Gatti says.

Gatti thinks her numbers show that certain parts of the Amazon may already be at their tipping point. She believes the data points to the same process that Ben Hur and Beatriz have witnessed, but on a greater scale: Rainforest species such as the brazil nut and the ironwood giving way to trees like mabea fistulifera and ouratea discophora that are more tolerant of the drier, hotter climate. Such regime change releases huge quantities of carbon and would help explain the forest’s flagging ability to draw down emissions.

“It is a path without return,” Gatti says.

WATER A CONSTANT WORRY

Back in Ouro Preto do Oeste, the Freires bemoan the driest dry season any of them can remember. It is mid-August, and the first rains used to come by now, they say. The dry season, once just three months, now stretches for four or five. Across the whole country, reservoirs are dangerously low as Brazil suffers one of its worst droughts in a century.

The family is diversifying to try and shield their business from drought, building out capacity in breeding and beef cattle to complement their milk production. They’ve also started an organic soap business and want to plant corn.

Water is a constant worry. Some nearby farmers have already sold their land – mostly to larger cattle ranchers who address the problem by digging deep wells or piping water over long distances.

“It’s going to get even drier,” says Gertrudes, looking out over her farm’s yellow grass as two cats laze comatose in the stifling afternoon heat. In the distance, smoke hazes the horizon as newly slashed forest burns. “The water will finish.”

 

(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer; editing by Kari Howard)

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Canada bans flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries – Canada Immigration News

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Published on November 27th, 2021 at 03:00am EST

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Sunset over Cape Town in South Africa.

Sunset over Cape Town in South Africa.

The Canadian government announced that it will limit travel to southern Africa, a region which has reported cases of a new COVID-19 variant of concern.

As of November 26, all foreign nationals who have travelled through the seven affected countries in the last 14 days will not be allowed to enter Canada. The affected nations include: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique .

Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home, but they will have to fly home indirectly, passing through a third country where they will also need to take a  molecular COVID-19 test.

Discover if You’re Eligible for Canadian Immigration

Canada’s health minister, Jean-Yves Duclos said people already in Canada who travelled in the region over the past two weeks should get a COVID-19 test and stay in isolation until they receive a negative test result.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the new measures will be in affect until at least Jan. 31, 2022.

The announcement comes after the World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed the new COVID-19 strain, also known as Omicron or B.1.1.529, as a variant of concern. So far, the Omicron variant has been detected in South Africa, Botswana, as well as in Israel, Belgium, and Hong Kong. It has not been found in Canada, according to Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam.

The transport minister encouraged Canadians who are unable to get home due to the restrictions to contact the emergency watch centre.

Discover if You’re Eligible for Canadian Immigration

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Canada needs to make a tough call on boosters as a new variant emerges – CBC.ca

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This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.


Despite a growing push to roll out COVID-19 vaccine boosters more widely in Canada, epidemiologists say there is currently no evidence of an urgent need for additional shots in the general population — due to the strong, ongoing protection two doses already provide.

But with the emergence of the potentially more infectious omicron variant, the holidays rapidly approaching and COVID-19 levels remaining elevated in much of the country, should Canada wait for more proof of waning immunity before expanding eligibility of boosters?

Or should we move quickly to offer up additional shots to fend off another potential surge as the U.S., the U.K. and Israel have done?

Some provinces and territories have already expanded access to boosters — including Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Yukon — while others have taken a more cautious approach by only offering them to certain vulnerable groups and health-care workers.

But the current case for rolling out third shots to most Canadians while much of the world remains unvaccinated and new variants continue to emerge seems weak at best.

“There is currently no evidence of widespread decreasing protection over time against severe disease in the general Canadian population who have been vaccinated,” a spokesperson for the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) told CBC News. 

“NACI continues to actively review available evidence from Canada and other countries, and if needed, will update advice on booster doses as a preventive measure.”

The current case for rolling out third shots to most Canadians while much of the world remains unvaccinated and new variants continue to emerge seems weak at best. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

‘Don’t want to wait until it’s too late’

Experts are divided over the need to expand access to additional shots to more Canadians — or even to everyone over 18 — and the emergence of the omicron variant will likely only heat up the debate further until we know more about it.

“I understand that mounting pressure to give more and more doses,” said Dr. Danuta Skowronski, epidemiology lead at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, whose research prompted Canada’s decision to delay second doses of COVID-19 vaccines

“But I cannot say based on the current evidence that there is a clear and present danger or need or indication for an additional dose for the general population of adults at this time.”

Skowronski said the latest data from B.C. and Quebec, released jointly as a recent preprint study that has yet to be peer reviewed, suggested mRNA vaccines were close to 95 per cent protective against hospitalization and over 80 per cent against any infection.

“Should we be attempting a preemptive strike to fend off a possible surge? Well, that kind of attitude is a slippery slope,” she said.

Rolling out boosters more widely is a “massive population-wide undertaking” that could set a bad precedent for future shots.

“We should only really make decisions ahead of the evidence if there is an urgent need to do so — otherwise we should be cautious in jumping the gun … and on what basis then do we make decisions about whether a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth dose?”

WATCH | Growng push for Ontario to expand COVID-19 booster shot eligibility:

Calls mount for Ontario to expand COVID-19 booster shot eligibility

6 days ago

There are growing calls for Ontario to expand the eligibility for COVID-19 booster shots to include more people who are immunocompromised. It comes as Sen. Josée Forest-Niesing, who had an autoimmune disease, died shortly after being hospitalized with COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. 2:00

New data from Public Health Ontario shows just nine fully vaccinated people under the age of 60 have been admitted to ICU since the vaccine rollout began.

Researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) in Toronto also found most fully vaccinated people in Ontario were still highly protected against both infection and severe COVID-19 eight months after their second dose.

ICES’s vaccine estimates showed that while protection against symptoms dropped to just over 80 per cent — and to more than 70 per cent when including asymptomatic infections — prevention of hospitalizations remained high at more than 90 per cent.

“So the question is, at eight months, is a vaccine effectiveness of 70-something per cent good enough? Or is that going to open the door to disaster?” said Dr. Jeff Kwong, an epidemiologist and senior scientist at ICES.

“We’re kind of in this precarious spot where we’re probably going to need boosters at some point, but whether we need them now is debatable — but you don’t want to wait until it’s too late.”

Canada is sitting on a massive stockpile of vaccines compared to other countries — with close to six million in the national inventory according to PHAC — while over one million doses have reportedly already gone to waste since our rollout began. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Millions of unused vaccine doses sitting in freezers

Canada is also sitting on a massive stockpile of vaccines compared to other countries — with close to six million in the national inventory according to PHAC — while over one million doses have reportedly already gone to waste since the rollout began.

“Right now, we should be offering boosters to everybody five months out of the second dose,” said Raywat Deonandan, a global health epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

“There are millions going unused, and we’re at the point where we’re struggling to get that last 20 per cent of people to even accept their first dose. So for the rest of us that have two doses, let’s maximize our immunity.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and member of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, says it’s “well past time” to expand booster eligibility to Canadians over the age of 50 who are six months out from their second shot at the very least.

“It’s pretty fair to say that there is some degree of waning immunity against getting the infection, but most of the data we’ve seen demonstrates that two doses still provide significant protection against severe disease,” he said. 

“But there is still value in reducing infection as well — it really can reduce amplification of the virus in the community, and you certainly can prevent some severe disease especially in the older cohort.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch says it’s ‘well past time’ to expand booster eligibility to Canadians over the age of 50 who are six months out from their second shot at the very least. (Alberta Health Services)

The push for expanding boosters in Canada comes despite the World Health Organization‘s plea to wealthier countries to hit pause on widespread booster shots until at least 2022 in favour of vaccinating more of the unvaccinated world.

The omicron variant emerged in southern Africa, which has some of the lowest vaccination rates globally, highlighting a dire need for more doses on the continent.

But Bogoch says the two approaches don’t need to be mutually exclusive. 

“We can align with the WHO’s request for a moratorium on population-level booster vaccines until 2022 but also simultaneously use the vaccines that we have and act in a data-driven manner by providing third doses to the 50-plus crowd,” he said.

“It was time to do this several weeks ago — if not a month or two ago — because we are headed into fall and winter months, and we know cases are going to predictably rise at this time of year.”

Boosters won’t prevent global threat of variants 

Canada’s COVID-19 reproductive rate has been sitting precariously close to one for months, meaning a surge in cases due to an increase in indoor gatherings during colder weather could lead to exponential growth.

“We are all at the cusp of either growth or the decline in cases — we’re just there,” said Dr. Leyla Asadi, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“And we are kidding ourselves if we think that there isn’t going to be a significant increase in contacts over the holidays. Of course, there will be, and of course, this will mostly be inside because we are living in Canada in the winter.”

Despite the increased risk during the next few months, experts say the emergence of a new variant of concern also further highlights the need to vaccinate people in lower-income countries who have had much less access to vaccines.

“Why do we have a stockpile of vaccines when much of the world does not have access to a first dose?” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University.

“The reality of the situation is Canada doesn’t make vaccines, and so, every dose that shows up on our soil is a dose that was not on someone else’s soil.”

A baby cries as her mother receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg on Oct. 21. (Denis Farrell/The Associated Press)

Canada has committed to donating 73 million more COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world, with four million doses sent to the WHO’s COVAX program earlier this month, but Chagla says giving low-risk Canadians another dose undermines that progress.

Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and a virologist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon, says that given the global threat of variants, it would be better for Canadians to wait for a variant-specific booster.

A booster tailored to the delta, omicron or other variants that emerge in the future would likely be more useful than a third shot of a vaccine aimed at the original Wuhan strain of the coronavirus.

“We should take some of the vaccines that might come in for boosters and donate those so that we’re dividing them up more evenly and not taking everything for Canada,” she said.

“That would be a much better strategy than bringing vaccines in for boosters, when it’s not clear if it’s going to help our current pandemic situation.”

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As an alarming new COVID-19 variant emerges, Canada moves to limit travel from southern Africa – CBC.ca

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Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced today that Canada will limit travel from seven countries in southern Africa, a region that has reported cases of a new — and possibly more infectious — coronavirus variant.

Starting today, all foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days will be barred from entering Canada.

Global Affairs Canada will also issue an advisory today warning against all travel to the region for the foreseeable future, Duclos said.

Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home — but they’ll face a new requirement that could make travel awkward.

Because there are no direct flights between the region and Canada, most travellers transit through airports in Europe, the Middle East and the U.S.

Starting today, travellers must get a molecular test in the country they connect through on their way to Canada.

Then, after landing in Canada, inbound travellers must also get an arrival test and wait for the results of that test at a designated hotel. If the test is negative, those returning travellers would be released to quarantine for a mandatory 14 days at home. They also would be required to go through a so-called “day eight” test on the eighth day of quarantine.

WATCH: Canada announces measures to counter new coronavirus variant of concern

Canada announces measures to counter new coronavirus variant of concern

8 hours ago

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced several measures to counter the newest coronavirus variant of concern named omicron, including a ban on all flights from seven countries in southern Africa. 2:14

And anyone who has arrived in Canada from southern Africa in the last 14 days must immediately get a COVID-19 test — even if they are asymptomatic. They’re required to go home and quarantine while they wait for those results.

As nations close their airspace to flights from southern Africa, it may become more difficult to travellers leaving the region to transit through other countries.

Asked if the government would help those who may become stranded, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Canadians have been warned about the risk of travelling during a global pandemic for nearly two years.

“We’ve been asking them to pay close attention to travel measures, to border restrictions,” he said. “But if any individual, any Canadian citizen, is having a hard time figuring out how to get back home, I encourage them to call the emergency watch centre to speak with an official. They will try and work with them to figure out how to get them home safely.”

WATCH: Minister encourages Canadians stranded by travel restrictions on southern Africa to call for help

Transport minister encourages Canadians stranded by travel restrictions on southern Africa to call for help

8 hours ago

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra responds to a question from the CBC’s Tom Parry about getting Canadians home from southern Africa safely after the government imposed new travel restrictions in response to a new COVID-19 variant. 2:21

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the new strain — dubbed the “omicron” variant by the World Health Organization (WHO) — has not yet been reported in Canada.

She said the omicron variant is notable because it has a large number of mutations, which may affect its transmissibility and the effect of COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’re concerned about this new variant and closely monitoring the evolving situation,” Tam told a briefing with reporters. “The challenges persist with this virus.”

Tam said the new travel requirements are a prudent effort to keep the variant out, but it’s likely cases of the omicron variant will emerge in Canada in the coming days.

“It is very difficult to keep a virus like this out entirely,” she said.

Tam said vaccines are “still fundamentally the most important layer of protection” and unvaccinated Canadians should get their shots. Research is underway now to determine the efficacy of the current batch of vaccines against omicron, she said.

It’s not unusual for a virus to mutate over time. The WHO brands a particular strain a variant of concern (VOC) when that mutation might affect factors like transmissibility, virulence or the effectiveness of vaccines.

While many questions remain, the U.K. Health Security Agency warned today that the new variant is the “most complex” and the “most worrying we’ve seen.”

In a media statement, the WHO said today the number of cases of this variant, initially named B.1.1.529, appeared to be increasing in almost all of South Africa’s provinces.

While COVID-19 case counts fell dramatically in that country in September and October after a delta-driven third wave, infections have since “increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant,” the WHO said.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.”

Countries around the world already have restricted travel from some areas of the African continent in an effort to keep the newly identified coronavirus variant from crossing their borders.

Britain, Israel and Singapore, among others, have restricted travel from South Africa and some neighbouring countries. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is proposing member states pull the “emergency brake” on travel from some countries in Africa to limit the spread of the variant.

In question period Friday, Conservative MP Luc Berthold, the party’s health critic, called for swift action to prevent the new variant from derailing Canada’s progress in the fight against COVID-19.

“Canadians are worried,” Berthold said. “The Liberal government has been slow, slow to warn Canadians, slow to close the borders, slow to provide vaccines. There’s still time to protect Canadians who are fed up with lockdowns.”

Associate Health Minister Carolyn Bennett said pre-departure PCR testing is in place and those tests “are capable of detecting this variant.”

“The COVID-19 situation around the world continues to be volatile and unpredictable and we continue to monitor the situation very closely,” she said.

WATCH | Associate Health Minister Carolyn Bennett discusses new measures on CBC’s Power & Politics

Minister urges Canadians to ‘continue to be vigilant’, as new COVID-19 variant emerges in South Africa

6 hours ago

“I’ve cancelled my Christmas party…I do think Canadians need to continue to be vigilant.” Associate Health Minister @Carolyn_Bennett on whether Canadians should cancel their holiday plans, as a new COVID-19 variant is emerging in South Africa. 11:07

Alghabra said the government wouldn’t take lessons from the Conservatives on pandemic management when the party’s leader, Erin O’Toole, refuses to require that all Conservative MPs get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Just last week, Alghabra said, the Conservatives were also calling for an end to pre-departure PCR testing and fewer travel restrictions.

“Forgive me for not taking advice from the Conservative Party,” he said.

Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-disease official, said banning flights to the United States from southern Africa is a “possibility” but that a decision has not been made yet.

“There is always the possibility of doing what the U.K. has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Fauci said Friday morning in an interview on CNN.

“That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do … But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.”

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