Nova Scotia

Dal researchers sending medical supplies to heart of coronavirus outbreak

Members of Dalhousie University's department of microbiology and immunology have gathered up respirator masks, coveralls and other protective gear to send to health-care workers in China dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

'I'm really worried about the citizens and the medical workers in Wuhan right now'

These N95 masks help protect health-care workers from exposure to coronaviruses and other pathogens. Researchers at Dalhousie University are sending dozens of these masks to Wuhan, China. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Researchers at Dalhousie University are working to send much-needed medical supplies to health-care workers in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the new coronavirus outbreak.

Members of the university's department of microbiology and immunology have started collecting respirator masks, coverall suits and other protective gear that can help prevent health-care workers from being exposed to the virus. 

The 2019 novel coronavirus is a flu-like illness that can cause pneumonia and other severe respiratory symptoms.

"What we want to do is help protect the people who are looking after people," said Alyson Kelvin, a virologist and assistant professor in the department. "The masks and the Tyvek suits are going to keep those people safe from contracting the virus and let them do their job."

The group has also set up a GoFundMe page to round up more equipment to send over. 

Alyson Kelvin is an assistant professor in Dalhousie University's department of microbiology and immunology. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Kelvin said they already have a good supply of items ready to go and they've ordered more that should arrive by mid-week. Once the last of the gear arrives, the researchers will quickly pack up the supplies and ship them to Wuhan. 

Zhenyu Cheng, an assistant professor in the department who was born and raised in Wuhan, said his parents, extended family and many friends still live in the city. Cheng said he was lucky and no one he knows was struck down by the virus.

"I don't have the feeling they're very anxious right now, because none of my friends or family members are infected. So they have to stay put at home most of the time, but they can go out for grocery shopping. So briefly, of course, wearing masks," he said Sunday.

"That's great news for me, but in the meanwhile I'm really worried about the citizens and the medical workers in Wuhan right now."

Researchers have been busy packing up medical supplies for Wuhan. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The Canadian Society of Virology is also helping in efforts to get supplies out. Cheng and other researchers at Dalhousie hope to contact the federal government to help co-ordinate their efforts and bring down some of their costs. 

In the meantime, the researchers at Dal are working with the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology and VIDO-Intervac in Saskatoon to start developing and testing potential vaccines against coronavirus.

"We have lots of experience developing vaccines for coronaviruses due to the emergence of SARS and MERS, so we're looking at what was learned from those experiences where we can kind of springboard off of that," said Kelvin. 

It generally takes years to get vaccines approved and onto the market, however Kelvin said given the situation, health officials could look at speeding up the process.

Zhenyu Cheng, an assistant professor at Dalhousie, is from Wuhan. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

In 2003, more than 400 Canadians were diagnosed with SARS and 44 died as a result of the epidemic that killed almost 800 people worldwide that year. 

Since that outbreak the Canadian medical community has put in place policies and procedures to safely deal with coronaviruses and prevent their spread, said Kelvin.

She doesn't worry too much about Canada's ability to cope with the virus. Instead, her main concern is the workers in Wuhan who don't have enough supplies to keep themselves safe. 

"Always you're worried about the people who are looking after people. They're the ones that will keep the community safe, they'll keep the virus contained. So we want to make sure that those people are again able to do their jobs," she said.

Some of the protective suits that will be sent to Wuhan. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

With files from Craig Paisley