The Current

Lessons learned in SARS outbreak will help global response to coronavirus, say infectious diseases specialists

Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says health authorities around the world have learned important lessons from the SARS outbreak that will help manage the current coronavirus outbreak in China.

Death toll from outbreak in China has risen to 6

A coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China has now spread to Thailand, South Korea and Japan.  (Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press)
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An infectious disease physician in Toronto says he "wouldn't bat an eye" if China's coronavirus outbreak spread to Canada given the lessons learned in the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s. 

"I think we're certainly prepared and braced for this infection, should it be imported," said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and scientist at Toronto General Hospital. 

"Based on our experience with SARS, people are managed in an appropriate manner so that they don't infect health-care workers and they don't infect other people."

Six people have been confirmed dead in the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China out of a total of 258 confirmed cases, the city's mayor Zhou Xianwang said Monday.

Outside of China, cases have been confirmed in Thailand, South Korea and Japan, and on Tuesday afternoon the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed one case in Washington state.

In the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, hundreds of people died around the world, including 44 in Canada. 

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Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital, was at the centre of the Canadian response to SARS. She told Galloway that the takeaways from that outbreak will help to curb the impact of coronavirus. 

"[There is a] very long list of things that make us unquestionably much better prepared for ... whatever's coming at us," said McGeer, who is also a professor of public health at the University of Toronto.

She said those tools include improved communication between health authorities in different countries, better detection of viruses and more effective management of infected populations to stop the spread.

McGeer said it's too early to know how the virus will develop.

But no matter what happens, we're "way ahead of the game relative to SARS," she said.

Information sharing is key

Bogoch agreed that the response to coronavirus has been swift.

China had profiled and shared the genetic sequence of coronavirus on Jan. 12 — two weeks after the outbreak was first detected, Bogoch said.

A quarantine notice about the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan is seen at an arrival hall of Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

He described the move as "unprecedented," while the World Health Organization said the move would be "of great importance for other countries to use in developing specific diagnostic kits."

Sharing clear information about the virus will be important, both in terms of what officials know, and what they don't know, Bogoch said.

"This can enable health-care providers and also the general public to manage by fact."


Written by Padraig Moran with files from Reuters. Produced by Idella Sturino, Cameron Perrier and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

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