Flights from Delhi to Vancouver questioned as India suffers record COVID-19 surge

As COVID-19 cases in India surge to extreme levels and a new variant of the virus first identified there has shown up in at least 39 cases in B.C., questions are being raised about whether flights from Delhi to Vancouver should be put on hold.

The flights have been tied to numerous COVID-19 exposures. Since the beginning of January, 45 flights from Delhi to Vancouver have had an exposure, along with one in February going in the other direction.

This month alone, there have been 17 flights from Delhi to Vancouver with exposures, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), along with seven from other cities, including Amsterdam, Mexico City, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas and Tokyo.

On Wednesday, BCCDC confirmed they had found 39 cases of the COVID-19 variant B1617 as of April 4. More recent data was not provided. 

The variant first identified in India has two mutations and is associated with a poorer antibody response, according to an immunologist with the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Quebec.

Dr. Navdeep Grewal, an emergency room physician in Delta and Vancouver and a member of the South Asian COVID-19 Task Force, has been watching the escalating situation in India closely. She has family in Punjab and Delhi.

“It’s certainly scary,” said Grewal. “A lot of Canadians here that live in B.C. and across Canada have family in India, and they’re certainly affected by this.”

Skyrocketing cases in India

Late Wednesday, India reported 314,644 new COVID-19 cases over the previous 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins University — the highest number of infections recorded in a single day in any country since the start of the pandemic. More than 2,100 deaths from COVID-19 were reported in that period, a record high for the country.

More than a million new cases have been recorded in the past four days.

“Obviously India has a very large population and they just don’t have the ability there to catch up to the variants,” said Grewal.

Dr. Navdeep Grewal, a member of the South Asian COVID Task Force, says flights from India to Canada should be paused temporarily until more information about a new variant identified in India is known. 

She’s looking forward to learning more about how the B1617 variant is different in terms of how transmissible and lethal it is, as well as other factors like the incubation period and whether the current vaccines are effective against it.

“I would certainly support, at least a temporary pause on flights while we learn more about this virus,” Grewal said of the variant. “But in addition to pausing the flights, I think our quarantine regulations must be more strictly enforced.”

Adrian Dix, B.C.’s health minister, is also focusing on federal quarantine enforcement for international travellers in light of confirmation the new variant has been spreading in the province.

‘Variant of interest’

On Wednesday, health officials announced the B1617 variant is now considered a “variant of interest.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix says officials in the province are pushing the federal government to increase quarantine enforcement. (Mike McArthur)

“If this variant is not a variant of concern — and it has not been identified as such yet — it’s concerning,” said Dix. “That being said, all COVID-19, all cases of COVID-19 are of concern. They are in India and they are in Canada.

“We do have some concerns with the implementation of the federal quarantine. We think that more can be done with respect to ensuring that not only is the quarantine enforced, but that people are supported in what can be a challenging quarantine,” he said.

Grewal also supports extending the quarantine period from three days to 10 or 14 days, as required by some other jurisdictions.

“Our quarantining that we’re currently doing, with three days in quarantine, may not catch all of the cases,” she said.

The BCCDC said on Wednesday that its Public Health Lab is reviewing genetic sequencing information and linking the variant to case details. The agency said it will be able to provide an update on the number and nature of these cases later this week.

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