The World Health Organization is expected to decide Thursday whether to declare an international public-health emergency over a new coronavirus that has spread rapidly from Wuhan, China, and that infectious disease experts say is likely to eventually turn up in Canada.
The WHO’s director-general said an emergency committee that met Wednesday in Geneva needed another day and more information before deciding whether to recommend that the SARS-like outbreak be declared a global emergency.
The WHO postponement came as Chinese authorities suspended outgoing travel from Wuhan, the city in central China where a cluster of pneumonia cases caused by a mysterious pathogen and linked to a wild game market was first reported less than a month ago.
The new virus, officially called 2019-nCoV, has since killed at least 17, sickened more than 500 and spread to five countries outside China, including the United States.
No cases have been confirmed in Canada yet, but public-health officials across the country are girding themselves for the arrival of a virus that bears an uncanny resemblance to SARS, the infectious respiratory disease that killed 44 Canadians in 2003.
“There’s definitely a bit of déjà vu associated with this event,” said Kamran Khan, an infectious-disease doctor at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “[SARS] was a very unnerving, rattling event. Many of our health-care workers are understandably concerned and we want to make sure we’re in front of this.”
Canada is much better prepared for an outbreak today than it was 17 years ago, said Dr. Khan, also the founder of BlueDot, a company that uses big data to detect outbreaks and predict how they’ll spread.
Allison McGeer, an infectious-disease consultant at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital who contracted SARS in 2003, said nobody would be surprised if a case of the coronavirus from Wuhan was found in Canada.
“But the issue is not one case,” she said. "One case is neither here nor there. It’s whether it comes and stays in Canada. That’s the question.”
On Wednesday, Ontario added 2019-nCoV to its roster of reportable diseases, meaning doctors and hospitals are now required by law to report suspected and confirmed cases to their local medical officers of health.
British Columbia and Alberta have already done the same, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott told reporters after she and the province’s chief medical officer of health briefed Premier Doug Ford and cabinet about the new virus.
“While the risk posed to Ontarians by the new coronavirus remains low," Ms. Elliott said, "the province is actively monitoring and is ready to respond.”
The head of Quebec’s public health authority said Wednesday five people in that province were under surveillance for possible exposure. The five, from the Montreal and Quebec City areas, had travelled to China.
In British Columbia, airports have implemented screening for early detection of infections, and quarantine officers are on hand at Vancouver International Airport. Richmond Hospital, the hospital closest to that airport, has infection-control practitioners ready to respond to potential scenarios where patients may require further investigation.
The BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) said it has developed a diagnostic test for the new virus, and it is co-ordinating staff and supplies to ensure it can quickly detect potential cases.
The University of B.C. has reached out to the BCCDC for guidance to facilitate the detection and containment of the virus, and student health services in Vancouver and the Okanagan are monitoring patients for symptoms, according to university spokesman Kurt Heinrich.
Three patients with respiratory symptoms who had recently travelled to Wuhan have already been tested for 2019-nCoV and cleared, Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer said Monday.
Dr. Tam is one of six advisers to the WHO emergency committee that postponed its recommendation Wednesday.
The committee was divided about whether to proceed, and WHO officials told a news conference that members wanted to better understand the severity of the viral illness and how it spreads.
“The decision about whether or not to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I’m only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general.
WHO experts told the news conference that, so far, 2019-nCOV seems to spread primarily through close human contact, but they are uncertain of the route of transmission. What’s more, they don’t know how deadly the virus is.
If the WHO were to declare the Wuhan coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, it would be only the sixth time since the process was established in 2005.
The global health authority reserves the emergency declarations for “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected” diseases that have public-health implications beyond the countries where they were first detected and which require a co-ordinated international response.
Previous declarations have been issued for two Ebola outbreaks in Africa, as well as for the Zika epidemic, the H1N1 swine flu pandemic and the resurgence of wild polio in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Dr. McGeer said the World Health Organization is trying to achieve a delicate balance: It wants to rally the world to fight the virus without irreparably harming the economy of the place where it first emerged.
“I think a piece of this is the World Health Organization trying to be clear that they’re getting what they want out of a declaration of an emergency, and that it’s not going to cause more harm than good," she said.
With a report from The Canadian Press