05/14/2014 02:23 EDT | Updated 07/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Doctor exposed to Florida MERS case in Canada; he tests negative for virus

TORONTO - A doctor who travelled to Canada after having contact with Florida's first MERS patient has tested negative for the virus, the Public Health Agency of Canada said Wednesday.

The unidentified man is being asked to stay in the country for several more days until officials feel confident he isn't infected with Middle East respiratory syndrome virus and that it is safe for him to travel. It can take as long as 14 to 16 days to develop MERS disease and the negative test, while a good sign, is not clear cut proof he isn't coming down with the infection.

The man travelled to Canada on vacation and who would prefer to go home, but is co-operating fully with Canadian health authorities, Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said in an interview.

His location has not been disclosed to protect his privacy.

The man, who is isolating himself in his hotel room, is currently reporting no symptoms of illness. Taylor said the doctor had minimal contact with the Florida MERS case, and only learned of his exposure to the new virus after he arrived in Canada.

Taylor said if the man remains symptom-free it is unlikely he would be asked to stay in Canada for the full incubation period of the disease — the time from exposure to symptom onset. Authorities might think about letting him fly home — "if he wore a mask" — somewhere around Day 9, 10 or 11 after his May 8 exposure to the patient. That would be sometime over the upcoming holiday weekend.

"If the (test) swabs are all negative, if the person remains totally asymptomatic and has absolutely no issues whatsoever — and we're doing the swabs both at the provincial laboratory and our laboratory (in Winnipeg) just to be doubly sure — and if he agrees to wear a mask, we think the risk is extremely low for Canadians," Taylor said.

"So if it's Day 10 and all those are in order, I think we're going to say 'Yeah, it's OK for you to go.'"

On the other hand if he does develop symptoms, he will not be cleared to travel, Taylor said.

Taylor is not aware of the physician's citizenship, but does know he does not live in Canada. Taylor also did not know if the man was travelling alone.

The man is one of about 20 health-care workers from Florida who are being tested and monitored after they were exposed to a patient with Middle East respiratory syndrome on May 8 at Dr. P. Phillips Hospital in Orlando, Fla.

That patient, also a doctor, lives and works in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. The hospital where he works has treated MERS patients. He travelled to Orlando on April 30 and May 1 via London, Boston and Atlanta.

The World Health Organization says it has been notified of 571 laboratory confirmed MERS cases since the first known cases occurred in April 2012. The WHO's numbers lag those reported by countries. The country count now tops 600, with roughly 180 deaths.

On Wednesday the Geneva-based global health agency announced that its emergency committee on the MERS virus had concluded the outbreak does not currently constitute a global public health emergency.

The expert panel called for better infection control in hospitals, especially in affected countries, and highlighted the urgent need for studies into how people are becoming infected with the virus.

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