Doctors, health officials in Alberta keep close eye on mysterious pneumonia outbreak in China

Alberta Health officials are monitoring an outbreak of pneumonia caused by a new strain of coronavirus that first emerged in China in late December and has now sickened one person in Thailand.

More than 40 cases of the infection — including one death — have been identified in Wuhan City, China and on Monday Thai officials confirmed a person who had travelled from Wuhan City had been diagnosed in that country.

The appearance of the first known case outside of China has elevated concerns that the mysterious virus — thought to be linked to a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan — could pop up here in Canada.

Cases could show up in Canada

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) it would not be unexpected for cases of the illness — related to the same family of viruses that caused the 2003 outbreak of SARS — to show up in other countries, including Canada.

"Given global travel and the height of respiratory infections season, it is not unexpected that returning travellers with severe pneumonia from an affected area will be investigated to rule out infection with the novel coronavirus," a spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.

"This is to be expected given our health systems have been alerted and are being vigilant for the novel virus, out of an abundance of caution."

At the provincial level, Alberta Health said it is working closely with PHAC including sharing information with its federal counterparts and monitoring for any potential health risks.

In a statement emailed to CBC News a spokesperson said the risk to Canadians is low and that there are no suspected cases in Canada at this time.

"Alberta, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the other provinces and territories have multiple systems in place to identify, prevent and control the spread of serious infectious diseases into and within Canada," the statement said.

While the public health department in Ontario has issued testing guidance for the new coronavirus, known as the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus, Alberta has yet to do the same.

Same virus family as SARS

The virus currently in the spotlight is from the same family of viruses that caused the SARS outbreak that killed 44 Canadians in 2003.

"This is very much the same pattern we saw with SARS, where it originated in one part of the world and travellers ended up bringing it to Canada," said Craig Jenne, associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

But, according to Jenne, there are some key differences with this outbreak, including more sophisticated technology and the fact China was quick to release the genetic sequence of the new virus, paving the way for other countries to develop tests.

"The world is a very different place than where we were with SARS … where we really didn't know what we were dealing with," he said.

"I think the big thing that's changed here though is that China's aware of this and is openly communicating with the rest of the world. So we're all on the lookout for it and this is something that shouldn't sneak up on our doorstep."

Noel Celis/AFP/Getty
Noel Celis/AFP/Getty

Scientists in Canada are now using that genetic sequence, posted by Chinese health officials, to develop a test specifically designed to detect the new coronavirus.

The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is currently able to run tests to identify the family of coronaviruses, which may pick up this newly identified virus.

According to PHAC the lab is expected to have the new more definitive test ready for use by next week.

Doctors are ready

"Behind the scenes there's a lot that goes on," said Dr. Joseph Kim, a Calgary-based infectious disease specialist and a medical director with Infection Prevention and Control Canada (IPAC Canada).

According to Kim, doctors on the frontlines are watching closely for signs of the illness here but with no confirmed reports of person-to-person spread — at least for now — the disease does not appear as deadly as SARS and other similar viruses.

"I think the public can be somewhat reassured that things are being monitored and as far as we know the risk to Canadians, it appears to be low at this point," said Kim.

"Once the information comes out that this is an issue of concern things get escalated appropriately and we do make preparations," he said.

Kim said in the past, when new virus outbreaks appeared in Canada, Alberta hospitals were alerted and asked to triage patients who had travelled to affected countries, keep them separate from other patients, and tests were expedited through the provincial lab.

"So we do have the capacity to sort of escalate our resources but as far as I know with this particular virus we haven't gotten that far yet."