A top official of the Public Health Agency of Canada has been named to a special panel to advise the World Health Organization on the new MERS coronavirus.

Dr. Theresa Tam has had years of experience with the public health agency, both in respiratory diseases and pandemic preparedness and more recently as branch head for the health security infrastructure branch.


The MERS coronavirus has infected at least 80 people since April 2012. (National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Canadian Press)

Tam is one of 15 experts from around the world who have been named to the WHO's so-called emergency committee, which will hold its first teleconference on Tuesday.

The group is being asked to assess the evolving situation and offer the WHO guidance on how to handle the outbreak, which to date has claimed at least 44 lives.

Its first order of business will be to decide whether the outbreak qualifies as a public health emergency of international concern under the provisions of a global health treaty called the International Health Regulations.

Other members of the committee include:

  • Dr. Martin Cetron, head of global migration and quarantine at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
  • Prof. Maria Zambon, director for reference microbiology services with Public Health England.
  • Dr. Ziad Memish, deputy minister of health for Saudi Arabia, the country which to date has recorded the most MERS cases.

Members of the committee are experts in infection control, epidemiology and public health, and come from a range of countries.

The WHO announced on Friday that it was convening an emergency committee on MERS, which has infected at least 80 people since April 2012.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO official who announced the formation of the committee, explained that while the agency doesn't currently feel MERS is a full-fledged crisis, it made sense to get outside advice on the situation at this point.

"This is a situation which makes us uneasy, but we can't say that it's a full-blown global pandemic. But we would like to have it assessed by other people too and have that input," Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security and the environment, said in an interview.

The release announcing the committee's membership contained conflict of interest declarations for two members of the committee, Zambon and Prof. Babacar Ndoye, a consultant and trainer in hospital hygiene, infection control and patient safety, from Dakar, Senegal.

The statement said Ndoye is in the process of setting up a training program in Senegal on hygiene and infection control, though the program has no relationship with industry.

Zambon, who has been with Public Health England (formerly known as the Health Protection Agency) since 1994, has as part of her government responsibilities liaised with industry on topics including vaccines and antiviral drugs. While the agency has received industry funds through collaborative research and development agreements, Zambon has not personally received funding, the statement said.