Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Says No Coronavirus Vaccine for a Year

Risk of catching the virus in Canada remains low, says Dr. Theresa Tam
January 30, 2020 Updated: January 30, 2020
FONT BFONT SText size

OTTAWA—Canada’s chief public health officer says it will likely take at least a year before a vaccine is developed to protect people against the new coronavirus that is spreading around the globe.

In the meantime, Dr. Theresa Tam says government and public health authorities should plan on having to manage the outbreak for some time to come.

More than 7,700 people in China have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus and 170 of them have died. There are three confirmed cases in Canada.

Ontario public health officials reported Wednesday that a presumptive case of the new deadly strain of coronavirus reported earlier this week has been confirmed by the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, bringing the number of confirmed cases in that province to two.

A presumed case in British Columbia was also confirmed by the national lab on Wednesday. Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, said officials are in regular contact with the individual who is in isolation at home.

All three of the Canadian cases are linked to recent travel in China.

Tam, who updated members of the House of Commons health committee on the outbreak, said the risk of catching the virus in Canada remains low.

And she said Canada and the world are much better prepared to deal with a potential pandemic than they were during the outbreak of SARS, another coronavirus that killed more than 700 people worldwide from 2002-04.

Among other things, she said international health regulations have been strengthened and Canada now has a public health agency that didn’t exist during the SARS outbreak, as well as improved laboratory and diagnostic capacity and better co-ordination among federal, provincial and territorial health authorities.

The speed with which the three cases in Canada have been identified, diagnosed and managed “is a testament to how the system has improved over time,” Tam told the committee.

That system will be tested as the virus spreads.

For now, the only treatment available for those who catch the virus is “supportive care,” Tam said. But she said countries around the world are collaborating to see if any existing anti-viral remedies are useful in this case.

A number of vaccines have previously been developed for other coronaviruses and she said countries around the globe are pulling together to see if they can accelerate development of a new vaccine that would protect against this particular strain.

“But what I can say is that even with the most rapid acceleration, I don’t believe we are going to see a vaccine that is ready probably for a year,” she said. “So at least we have to plan for the fact that we’re going to be managing this particular virus with no specific vaccine.”

Tina Namiesniowski, president of the Public Health Agency of Canada, told the committee it is to be expected that there will be travel-related cases in Canada and that the number of confirmed cases will rise.

At the three airports that receive direct flights from China—Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal—information screens in the customs areas have been set up, advising people to self-report to customs officials if they are experiencing any symptoms of the novel coronavirus. At electronic kiosks, a question has been added, requiring travellers to specify if they’ve been in the Chinese province at the heart of the outbreak.

By the end of the week, Namiesniowski said more public health officials will be in customs areas at the three airports to help border officials.

The federal government, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that it has chartered a plane to evacuate 160 Canadians who’ve been trapped in China due to strict quarantine measures imposed by the Chinese government in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.

Details are still being worked out about how and when the evacuation will take place and whether those returned to Canada will have to be quarantined once they arrive.

Not everyone who wants to come back to Canada may be able to leave, Tam warned.

“The Chinese authority will not let anyone who might be infected on the plane,” she told the committee.

Some airlines have halted all flights to China as a result of the outbreak, including British Airways and several Asian carriers, while Air Canada is only cancelling select flights to China.

The Canadian government is advising against all travel to China.