A new pathogen that is believed to have originated in a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China, late in December has spread to at least 15 countries including Canada, the U.S., France and Singapore.
The Wuhan virus is a new form of coronavirus — a term for a group of viruses that have crown-like spikes on them and cause illnesses as benign as the common cold and as severe as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).
What is it?
This strain of coronavirus has infected more than 6,000 people globally and killed at least 132. In some people, it causes symptoms similar to the common cold — such as coughing and fever — but in more severe cases it gives patients pneumonia-like symptoms.
Coronaviruses often spread between animals, but some make the jump from animal to human when they mutate, which appears to be the case here, according to Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University.
Initially, the disease wasn’t readily transmitted from person to person and all patients had visited the market believed to be the source of the outbreak. But the virus appears to have mutated, giving it the ability to transmit more easily between people and having infected some health-care workers. However, all transmissions are still first and secondary. That means so far, people who got sick either went to the market or were in contact with someone who was at the market, which has been closed for disinfection since Jan. 1. No one has gotten it from third or fourth degree transmission, Hoffman said.
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Viruses and other pathogens evolving is one of the challenges when it comes to managing and curing them, but it happens often.
“The important thing to note is this isn’t abnormal … this kind of development is exactly what the world has been preparing for because we know that these things are going to happen,” Hoffman added.
Symptoms of the disease include coughing, fever, difficulty breathing and lesions on the lungs that can be seen during medical imagery.
Researchers and doctors are still searching for answers regarding this new coronavirus, including what animal passed it on to a human. Investigations into the disease’s origins, range of effects and types of transmission are still in their beginning stages.
Is Canada concerned?
On Jan. 25, health officials confirmed a man in his 50s who had travelled from Wuhan to Toronto had contracted the virus — the first reported case in Canada. Officials said the man was in stable condition in a negative pressure room at a Toronto hospital. A second case in Toronto — the first patient’s wife — as well as a case in B.C. have now also been identified.
Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said the province’s health system acted as it should and “the risk to Ontarians is still low.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada is monitoring the situation as it progresses but also said the risk to Canadian travellers and Canada is low. A spokeswoman from the agency said the country is well positioned to deal with the disease.
“We have been preparing with the provinces and territories since we heard about the first cases in China. We began implementing new measures to mitigate the risk of introduction of the virus into Canada and to control and prevent its spread,” said Maryse Durette, the agency’s senior media relations advisor.
Canada’s robust public health infrastructure means the country is prepared to deal with it, Hoffman noted.
“[The system] is ready to identify cases, diagnose them, isolate people if needed, and provide the full range of care for those who find themselves sick.”
Hoffman said there’s no need to panic. However, health agencies must be ready, which is why investing in public health even between outbreaks is so vital.
“This is the new normal in the sense that we live in a globalized world where people are travelling and carrying pathogens and bacteria with them, which do not carry passports. So we just need to be prepared.”
Federal health agencies have already planned with their territorial and provincial counterparts on what actions to take if more cases start to appear in Canada.
“If a case is identified, the ministry will convene several co-ordination and communication processes, including the clinical team treating the case to ensure they have the scientific and technical expertise and support that they need. We will also share communications with our broader health-system partners for their situational awareness,” David Jensen, a spokesman for Ontario’s Ministry of Health, said before the virus reached the province.
This map below from Johns Hopkins University shows the global spread of the new coronavirus. Story continues below.
Other provinces are deploying similar measures.
“In Alberta, we have proactively issued a province-wide advisory to doctors to ensure physicians are aware of the virus, are able to take recommended actions and promptly alert public health officials if they encounter a suspected case,” Tom McMillan, a representative for Alberta Health, told HuffPost Canada.
“The Chief Medical Officer of Health is also working with Alberta Health Services to ensure that the health system is ready to respond effectively if needed,” he added.
How can Canadians protect themselves?
Like other coronavirus strains, the Wuhan virus can be spread through coughing, sneezing or general contact with someone carrying the pathogen. Experts recommend taking all the regular precautions that people should be taking during flu season anyway — washing hands often, coughing into your elbow instead of your hand, not going to work if you’re feeling unwell, avoiding contact with sick people, and seeing a doctor as soon as possible if you’re showing symptoms.
Masks might make you feel better, but they aren’t particularly helpful, as most are more likely to protect the person wearing them from spreading the infection rather than catching it.
A vaccine could take years of research and testing to develop. MERS, for example, which emerged in 2012 and has already killed 851 people, still doesn’t have an approved inoculation. SARS, which was identified in 2002 and killed 774, mostly ran its course on its own by the end of 2003. Most people with various forms of coronavirus recover on their own, but older people and those with chronic disease are more likely to be hit with severe forms of the illness.
But Canada and other countries are more prepared to deal with this virus than they were in 2002 when SARS was active. Communication between nations is open, and the specific strain of coronavirus already has a diagnostic test available.
“What’s most important is that we’re monitoring, keeping up to date on what’s happening, trying to learn as much as possible and sharing that information with everyone who needs that. What we’re seeing is a lot of communication between the federal governments and provincial and territorial governments, as well as between Canada and other countries and the World Health Organization,” Hoffman noted.
“The first step of being prepared for a potential future pandemic is to have that information and have the mechanisms to share it.”
A Canadian travel advisory recommends travellers to China avoid high-risk areas that have animals such as farms, markets and butchers, avoid contact with living and dead animals, and avoid surfaces with animal waste on them. The advisory also reminded travellers to wash their hands frequently and monitor their own health carefully during and after their trips. Travel in and out of China was expected to increase around the Lunar New Year holiday on Saturday.
China has put at least 12 cities under lockdown, attempting to restrict the movements of around 35 million people. Hoffman said a quarantine on that scale is “unprecedented” and is unlikely to work, either in China or hypothetically in Canada.
“Even if we did try to stop travel, it still happens anyway. The good news about travel that’s done through official channels like flights is that you can track it and if someone does get a case, you can use some contact tracing knowing who that person traveled with and who they were around,” he said. “Generally travel bans don’t work and people find ways around them.”
Many international airports across the globe, including ones in Canada and the U.S., are screening passengers for symptoms, though this approach didn’t work very well during the SARS outbreak.
“In theory, it allows you to narrow in on who might have this, but in practice in the past, that approach was not shown to be helpful during SARS, for example, there were cases where people were in Canadian airports. We did screen millions of people for temperatures and didn’t find a single case of SARS. That way so very expensive, disruptive and doesn’t always work.”
Since the virus has already been genetically sequenced, diagnosing new cases is a fairly quick process. The World Health Organization is monitoring the situation but has not yet declared a global health emergency because the spread outside of China is still contained.
With files from The Canadian Press
This story will be updated as new information emerges.