Canada is preparing to evacuate citizens stranded in China as world health officials warn that the coronavirus outbreak poses a growing global threat that needs an urgent international response.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said on Wednesday that Canada has secured an airplane and is working with Chinese officials to finalize details to evacuate Canadians who have been unable to leave the Wuhan area of China due to travel restrictions imposed as a result of the outbreak. Mr. Champagne said 160 Canadians in the affected area have requested consular assistance.
“Now, the next step obviously is to work on the diplomatic front, and the logistics, obviously, with our Chinese counterparts,” Mr. Champagne said on Parliament Hill.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Canada also has to make plans to mitigate the potential public health risk of people returning from Wuhan who may have been exposed to the new coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV. Canada has not yet said how it will manage the passengers. British citizens evacuated from the Wuhan area are being told to quarantine themselves for 14 days to monitor for signs of illness. On Wednesday, the United States evacuated about 200 of its citizens to the March Air Reserve Base in California from Wuhan, where they were assessed by health officials. Anyone with symptoms was to be transported to a hospital. Those without symptoms were being asked to stay for further evaluation.
“The first and foremost thing to remember is that we will always work to ensure the health of Canadians, whether they’re abroad or whether they’re here,” Ms. Hajdu said.
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam told the House of Commons health committee on Wednesday passengers will be screened before they board the plane in China.
Tina Namiesniowski, the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada, told the committee the government will meets its obligations under the Quarantine Act, which is intended to prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases to Canada.
Global Affairs Canada on Wednesday urged Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel to China. Air Canada temporarily suspended all direct flights to Beijing and Shanghai as of Thursday.
So far, more than 7,700 people have been infected with the virus and 170 have died. Nearly all of the illnesses are in China, and no deaths outside that country have been reported. Canada has three cases of the virus: two confirmed ones in Ontario involving a husband and wife, and a third in B.C. All three recently travelled to Wuhan, are recovering and have been isolated.
Experts from the World Health Organization will meet on Thursday to decide whether to declare the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. According to the WHO, such declarations are made in the case of “extraordinary” events that constitute an international public health risk and require a co-ordinated international response.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, will base the decision on the advice of the international health regulations emergency committee. The committee last week said it needed more information before deciding.
On Wednesday, Dr. Tedros said the rapid transmission of the virus is “deeply concerning,” and he highlighted the fact that a few human-to-human transmissions have occurred outside China – in Japan, Germany and Vietnam. While the number of cases reported outside China is still less than 100, Dr. Tedros said the situation still holds “the potential for a much larger outbreak.”
Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said the global threat from 2019-nCoV is growing and all countries must mount a united response. He said they can take measures to slow transmission, such as ensuring front-line health providers are prepared to handle cases.
“The whole world needs to be on alert now,” he said at a news conference in Geneva. “The whole world needs to take action.”
About 20 per cent of people who get the virus become severely ill with pneumonia, respiratory failure and other complications, the WHO says. And about 2 per cent of patients die. But the numbers could change as officials track more cases and conduct more research.
For instance, a study in The Lancet on Wednesday of 99 Chinese 2019-nCov patients found that 11 per cent died.
The death rate for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was about 10 per cent.
WHO officials said they also expect to see more mild cases of the illness as they do more tracking. At the beginning of outbreaks, the detected illnesses tend to be the more severe ones, as those people seek medical help, and milder cases are found through surveillance.
One of the challenges, Dr. Ryan said, is that officials still haven’t traced the origin of the virus. While many reports linked it to a seafood market in Wuhan, some evidence shows individuals who did not visit the market became infected, possibly as early as November.
Dr. Ryan said while the situation is concerning, officials around the world need to use their knowledge and resources from previous outbreaks to mount the proper response.
Dr. Ryan and Dr. Tedros said China’s government is sharing information about cases and its efforts to track, monitor and contain the virus.
“From my perspective, China has been very open in reporting its cases on a daily basis to us,” Dr. Ryan said. “We’ve seen no obvious lack of transparency.”
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