In December of 2019, there was a novel virus outbreak in the city of Wuhan, China following a unique case of pneumonia. The novel (new) virus is part of a larger family of viruses known as “coronaviruses.” As of February 11th 2020, The WHO (World Health Organization) has ‘named’ the novel coronavirus COVID-19, short for “coronavirus disease 2019,” according to a situation report published by the WHO. 

Although experts are assuring Canadian citizens that all confirmed cases of the virus on Canadian soil have been successfully contained, as this is a viral infection that is not yet treatable, I had some questions for experts in the industry. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: The WHO states novel coronaviruses, such as the Wuhan coronavirus, “is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.” Could you break down the science of a “novel coronavirus” and explain why it has not been previously identified, as well as its potential for a pandemic.

A: It is novel because it was not previously transmitted between humans before. However, COVID-19 (how it was christened by WHO) was circulating in some animal reservoirs before it “jumped” from its animal host to humans in Wuhan (China) sometime in November/December of last year. The Public Health Agency of Canada currently assesses that the risk posed by COVID-19 is low. However, epidemiologists worldwide are concerned that China might not be able to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Q: What are the most effective preventative measures that Montrealers can take to ensure the safety of such a virus?

A: COVID-19 is not present in Quebec at this time. So far, the few cases of COVID-19 that were introduced in Canada were successfully isolated and their contacts traced. As a result, Montrealers should be more concerned about the flu than COVID-19. Further, WHO recommends the same precautionary measures for flu and COVID-19: wash your hands often, practice respiratory hygiene (cough/sneeze in your elbow/tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, etc.

Q: In your opinion, should the Canadian government be worried about the potential effects of coronavirus? From a purely scientific standpoint.

A: Yes, the situation calls for proactive measures. The government is monitoring the rapidly evolving situation carefully even if the risk to Canadians is currently evaluated to be low.

– Dr. Mathieu Maheu-Giroux (Professor of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University, Montreal)

Q: The symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to those of the common cold/flu. With that being said, why is there so much concern surrounding this virus?

A: Because this virus is a respiratory infection, it can progress to a more serious infection such as pneumonia, which in some serious cases can be fatal. This is why public health officials and medical institutions are being vigilant, as to limit the spread of the virus.

Q: Why is finding a vaccination for a virus so difficult?

A: It may indeed be possible to develop an effective vaccine; however, the amount of time it will take to do so is difficult to determine at this time. Some of the challenges involved in developing vaccines include the fact that viruses can change over time, and several viruses have evolved to specifically inhibit the immune response of the host.    

Q: Are there any procedures currently in place (in Quebec and/or Canada) to handle a pandemic situation?

A: I’m not an expert on public health policy, however, to the best of my knowledge, due to the recent influenza pandemics, countries worldwide (including Canada) have indeed put certain measures in place to deal with future pandemic situations, should they present themselves.

– Dr. Angela Pearson (Professor of Molecular virology and viral pathogens, Centre Armand-Frappier Santé Biotechnologie)

Note: This interview (with Dr. Pearson) was not translated verbatim, however, was reviewed by Dr.Pearson prior to publishing.  

*Special thanks to Dr. Peter Pawelek, (Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Concordia University) who greatly assisted with discovering Montreal virology experts.