Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory is developing diagnostic tests for the new coronavirus infection that has sickened at least 40 people worldwide and caused at least 20 deaths.

The Winnipeg lab obtained a live sample of the novel coronavirus from Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on May 4.

si-coronavirus-220-cp-04405

A colourized transmission electron micrograph shows a virion of the novel coronavirus that emerged in 2012 and has sickened at least 40 people, with at least 20 deaths. (National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Canadian Press)

The virus strain is the human beta-coronavirus EMC (HCoV-EMC), a spokesperson for the agency said in an email.

The lab's research priorities for the virus include:

  • Developing important diagnostic tests, including a test to detect antibodies against the virus, which will allow researchers to determine with greater accuracy if someone has been exposed to the virus.
  • Testing antivirals to determine if they are effective against the virus.
  • Understanding which animals might act as host reservoirs for the virus and if they have the capability to spread the virus.
  • Using advanced technologies to develop and test vaccines to determine if they provide protection against the virus.

Doctors and researchers want to develop antibody tests to help with diagnosis.

"The virus is only there for a short period of time so you can't really tell whether somebody had a past infection or not whereas antibodies allow you to do that," said Dr. Frank Plummer, the scientific director of the National Microbiology Laboratory.

Provincial public health laboratories can also detect the coronavirus using diagnostic tests that the national lab produced using the genetic sequence data of the new virus.

The virus first appeared last year in the Middle East and travellers have brought it to France, Britain and Germany.

"The Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia has informed WHO of an additional two laboratory-confirmed cases with infection of the novel coronavirus," the UN health agency said in a statement Wednesday.

It is the first time that health-care workers have been confirmed with the infection from exposure to patients, Gregory Hartl, head of public relations and social media for WHO, said in an email.

Hartl said he did not know what kind of health-care workers they were.

The agency says health-care facilities caring for patients with suspected coronavirus infections should take "appropriate measures" to decrease the risk of transmission to other patients and health-care workers.

WHO officials visiting Saudi Arabia to consult on the outbreak have said the virus could pass between humans after prolonged, close contact.

There have been no cases detected in Canada.

With files from The Canadian Press