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‘Lightning rod’ cities Vancouver and Toronto could see coronavirus cases — but Canada has tools to contain: expert

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VANCOUVER—Vancouver and Toronto are the “lightning rod” cities likeliest to get hit by a mysterious virus that has killed at least three people in China, one expert said Tuesday, hours after the first North American case was confirmed in Washington state, not far from the border with B.C.

Still, Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto, said Canada’s SARS-era screening and quarantine strategies are the best bet to catch and contain the virus should it arrive in this country.

As of Monday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control had posted a notice to its website calling risk to Canadians “low,” but saying that airports in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver would tell passengers travelling from China they must tell a border agent if they felt unwell.

Neither the B.C. CDC nor the Public Health Agency of Canada responded to questions Tuesday about whether plans to screen for the virus would be ramped up following the confirmed case in Washington, about two and a half hours drive from the B.C. border.

In Wuhan — one of China’s largest cities and a hub for industry and technology — the yet-to-be-officially-named coronavirus caused an outbreak of severe pneumonia among people who frequented a seafood market there late last month. Health authorities have reported 198 cases in the city, and the virus has also spread to Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

Authorities announced this week that human-to-human transmission has been confirmed in the outbreak, raising fears the illness could spread more quickly and widely.

Fish, who studied the SARS outbreak in 2003, said it’s possible the mysterious virus will appear in Canada, because of the large amount of international flights that arrive here.

“I’ve always said there are two places in Canada that are lightning rods: Vancouver and Toronto,” she said. “Because there are diverse populations there from all over the world.”

But, she said, Canada’s history with SARS should reassure the public that if the coronavirus arrives in this country, it can be contained.

“After the SARS outbreak, Canada became a leader in our ability to put protocols in place,” Fish said, pointing out that the people who got sick from SARS in Canada were health-care workers in contact with patients who had picked up the virus abroad. “People from around the world came to Canada to find out how we had done this.”

The patient in the confirmed coronavirus case in the U.S. returned to the Seattle area in the middle of last week after travelling to the Wuhan area. The man is in his 30s and is in good condition at a hospital in Everett, outside Seattle.

A statement on Canada’s Public Health Agency website said this country’s chief public health officer is working with provincial chief medical officers to make sure the virus is identified and managed if it shows up in Canada.

Fish, whose research centres on antiviral drugs that could target a broad spectrum of viruses, from Ebola to bird flu, said the spread of the coronavirus should serve as a wakeup call for Canada on how to prepare for new and unknown viruses of the future.

“Maybe it’s time that, globally, we sat down and said, ‘OK, stop focusing on the specific virus, but look at the host, humans,” she said. “We could dedicate some funds toward establishing an armory of antivirals that we could actually treat people with.”

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The Public Health Agency of Canada issued a notice warning travellers to China, expected to increase this week for lunar New Year, to avoid contact with animals and sick people.

With files from Ilya Bañares and the Associated Press

McKeen Alex logo2017 - ‘Lightning rod’ cities Vancouver and Toronto could see coronavirus cases — but Canada has tools to contain: expert

Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen



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