As clinical trials begin on a Canadian Ebola vaccine, the country's top public health officials are set to discuss whether to strengthen their strategy for preventing or containing an Ebola case after an American nurse fell ill despite efforts to prevent spread of the virus.
Gregory Taylor, Canada's chief public health officer, will play host to a teleconference on Tuesday with provincial counterparts and experts dealing with the U.S. Ebola cases. It is expected to focus on PPE guidance for health workers, or how to safely put on and take off personal protective equipment.
Dr. Taylor said Monday he believes Canada's current measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola "should be adequate," but "we may need to strengthen them."
One provincial officer said questions remain about how any case – or outbreak – would be handled.
"Should we expect every hospital to be able to care for an Ebola patient? Or should we say we're going to have a centre for expertise in every province?" Perry Kendall, British Columbia's Provincial Health Officer, said in an interview Monday, adding: "I think those are the kind of pragmatic things we're going to be talking about."
Health Canada has regularly stressed that the risk to Canadians remains low, and the country has had no confirmed Ebola cases. Public health officials have been holding regular calls to discuss the Ebola outbreak. But the case of a Dallas nurse who got Ebola after treating an infected patient will "certainly raise the anxiety level, and we certainly have to be sure we can ensure the safety of health-care workers," Dr. Kendall added.
Meanwhile, new border controls are now in effect to prevent the spread of Ebola to this country. Those coming from West Africa to Canada – about 30 people a week, Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Monday – will be questioned by a quarantine nurse at the airport when they arrive. The nurses are stationed at six major Canadian airports – in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, Ottawa and Montreal – and will question travellers and do a basic health assessment, such as checking a passenger's temperature.
"This is just one measure as part of an overall suite of measures being developed," Ms. Ambrose said, later conceding: "border measures will only protect us if that person is showing symptoms."
The federal government knows of 219 Canadians in the affected region, and Ms. Ambrose has called on those not fighting the Ebola outbreak to return to Canada.
On Monday, Ms. Ambrose announced that Canada's VSV-EBOV vaccine has begun phase-one clinical trials in the United States. The vaccine, developed by federal researchers and licensed to a private company, is to be administered before someone is exposed to the virus, and has been successful in animal testing.
Ms. Ambrose called the start of trials a "very positive and hopeful" development. "If the Canadian vaccine is proven to be safe and deemed effective, it will stop this devastating outbreak," the minister said.
The phase-one trial might be expanded to other countries, but the initial trial is set to be complete by December. After that, more testing would await. Even if the vaccine proves effective, there likely won't be enough immediately available to give to all front-line health workers in West Africa, where Ebola's impact has been most severe, Dr. Taylor said.
More than 4,000 people have died from the virus, all but a few of them in West Africa, according to World Health Organization figures. On Monday, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged that hospitals "think Ebola" – acting quickly to contain potential cases. Canadian hospitals appear to have begun to do that, as the country continues to see precautionary quarantines in cases where a patient may have Ebola.
One such case in Belleville, Ont., was reported Monday, with a sample sent to a national laboratory for testing. The patient had recently visited West Africa, but officials played down the likelihood of a positive test.
Two other potential Ebola cases in Ottawa and Edmonton were ruled out Monday.
"Strict infection prevention and control measures in Ontario hospitals means the risk of Ebola to other patients and health-care workers is minimal," Jonathan Angel, an infectious disease specialist at The Ottawa Hospital, where one patient is being treated, said in a statement.
Ms. Ambrose said she's confident Canadian hospitals are prepared to limit the spread of Ebola if a case pops up.
"Our front-line hospitals and clinics do have good training, especially after our experience with SARS, in dealing with infectious disease prevention," Ms. Ambrose said.
Canada has pledged 800 to 1,000 doses of the vaccine to the World Health Organization, though they haven't yet been shipped.
Ms. Ambrose said the Canadian government hopes a shipment will take place in "the very near future."
A second potential vaccine developed by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GlaxoSmithKline is also currently undergoing phase-one trials in Britain and the West African countries of Mali and Gambia.
With a report from André Picard