As the death toll from the novel coronavirus reached at least 490 people worldwide, health officials in British Columbia announced a new presumed case of the virus Tuesday which, if confirmed, will bring the total number of those infected with it in Canada to five.
The woman, a 50-something resident of the Metro Vancouver area, had recently been in “close contact” with visitors from the Wuhan region in China, the epicentre of the outbreak, said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s chief medical officer of health.
The woman became ill after hosting visitors from Wuhan and was treated and tested in hospital and then released, Henry said. Her sample came back positive and has been sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, where Henry expects the diagnosis will be confirmed.
The woman remains in quarantine at her home. Her guests, who are still in Canada, are also being monitored.
The announcement came just as the national near-hysteria over the virus appeared to have crested. None of the first four Canadians, three in Ontario and one in B.C., with confirmed cases of the virus remained in hospital as of Tuesday.
There are some signs, meanwhile, that novel coronavirus may not be nearly as fatal as it was initially feared, and nowhere near as fatal as SARS or MERS, two other, related, coronaviruses. “This could be more akin to a moderately bad flu, or even a more severe flu, which the world experiences every decade or so,” said Dr. Michael Gardam, chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital and an infectious disease specialist.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to be concerned about in Canada. In an interview before the fifth case was confirmed Tuesday, Gardam warned that the worst could still be to come here.
“Nobody’s not worried. But none of us are worried currently that this is a problem in Canada. We’re all worried about the potential of this becoming a problem in Canada,” he said.
Until and unless the outbreak is contained in China and the spread of the virus slows, the risk of a global pandemic remains. “I don’t think this is going to be a short-term thing,” he said. “Because of the nature of how it’s spreading and what’s happening in China, we could unfortunately be dealing with this story for the next two years.”
That doesn’t mean anyone should be panicking, said Steven Hoffman, an epidemiologist and the director of the Global Strategy Lab at York University. “In the most likely scenario, we’re going to get more cases,” he said. “But also what’s most likely is that they’ll be quickly identified and contained, just like the first four cases were.”
What makes the latest case significant, however, is that the patient herself had not travelled to China, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto. “That’s called secondary spread,” he said. “That’s a problem.”
Still, for now, it is not a dire one.
A virus can become a pandemic when the chains of transmission multiply and efforts at containment fail. In other words, when you start seeing the virus spread from people who were infected at the site of the outbreak to people they physically saw or touched and then beyond them to third or fourth degrees of separation, in different locations, then you have a real problem.
We aren’t there yet with the novel coronavirus, Bogoch said. “In a week or two, we’ll know which direction this is going,” he added. It has already spread from China to countries in the developing world without robust systems of public health. If any one of those becomes its own hub of infection, the virus may spread, out of control, around the world. “I still think all efforts should be on containment,” Bogoch said. “But we have to prepare for the situation where that does not succeed.”
Trying to catch everyone who might be infected with the virus before or as soon as they arrive in the country is a bit like catching fly balls in the outfield, Bogoch said. “If there’s a bunch of them coming in, you can run around and catch them, but if you’re just getting overwhelmed, lots of them are going to miss you and they’re going to hit the ground.”
All of that said, Hoffman believes the Canadian government has responded to all of this so far about as well it could do. “I am someone who makes a living on criticizing the way that government responds to public health issues. And when I look at the federal government’s response to this outbreak, I’ve been really impressed,” he said. For Canadians worried about the virus, he believes, that should count for a lot.
“I would say this outbreak has my full attention,” he said. “But I also think people should be paying more attention to things that are actually greater risks, like the seasonal flu, like having a good night’s sleep, like not smoking tobacco.”