As a microbiologist and a native of Wuhan, Zhenyu Cheng has more than the usual interest in the coronavirus outbreak in China.
The Dalhousie University researcher’s mother lives there and he still has friends back home so he’s been in regular contact since the seriousness of the outbreak became evident in past weeks.
But if his mom and friends are any indication, there’s hardly a sense of panic in the city of 11 million people in eastern China. His mother, who is 67, wears a face mask when she goes out and takes other precautions such as frequent hand-washing, but Cheng said she’s not overly concerned.
“At first I thought it was just my mom, maybe just not to let me worry,” Cheng said in an interview Friday at his lab. “But other relatives, friends, the overall feeling is that they are not too worried at this point.”
The outbreak of an unusually virulent strain of the common respiratory disease had led Chinese authorities to restrict travel in and out of Wuhan and at least 11 other cities in the region.
Dozens of people have died from the virus and more than 900 people have been infected.
Besides telephone conversations, Cheng said he keeps on top of the situation through the We Chat app that is commonly used in China.
“You can have a real-time, very up to date update of this situation,” he said, showing visitors the app’s coronavirus page, which has the latest statistics and a map of the areas most affected according to information provided by the Chinese government.
After doing his undergraduate degree in Wuhan, Cheng, 41, moved to Canada with his wife in 2002 so they could study at the University of Waterloo, where he earned his masters and doctoral degrees in microbiology.
After a detour down south to Boston for post-doctoral work, the Chengs and their two children returned to Canada after he took advantage of “a great opportunity” at Dalhousie as an assistant professor and researcher specializing in the bacterial aspects of diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
Medical equipment needed
Cheng and his Dalhousie colleagues, including immunologist David Kelvin, have started a campaign to collect equipment for their medical counterparts in China.
“Their request right now is for any help that they can get in supplying equipment which is used to protect health-care workers from infection,” said Kelvin, who helped establish a collaboration with Chinese researchers during the SARS epidemic called the International Institute of Infection and Immunity at Shantou University Medical College.
“That would be the suits that you see, TIVECK suits, PPE masks, gloves, things like this. What we’re trying to do is a two-pronged attack, one is to solicit existing supplies within China, within Toronto and Halifax for the most needed items and ship them over.
“The other one is to see if we can get funding through either local agencies or national agencies for donations to purchase equipment, which we can also ship over.”
The researchers from Dalhousie and the Canadian Society for Virology have started a Go Fund Me page to raise money for their campaign.
The biggest challenge likely won’t be actually getting the supplies but making sure they arrive where they’re most needed in China, so he’s trying to track down officials in the Canadian government who could help with logistics in that regard.
In speaking with his colleagues in China, Kelvin said “the anxiety is very high in the medical community."
“For the medical workers in Wuhan, they’re exhausted, they’re overworked, trying to deal with an incredibly long demanding population of people.”
More than 3,500 Chinese students - about 41 per cent of all international students - are enrolled at Nova Scotia institutions. University officials in Halifax said they’re doing their best to keep them informed about the latest developments.
“We are monitoring the situation closely,” said Cale Loney, spokesman for Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, in an email Friday.
“As with any situation where there may be a health impact on our students, we have reached to public health officials and necessary actions will be co-ordinated with them.”
New strain of common virus
A Dalhousie spokeswoman said the university works closely with the Nova Scotia public health officials and the Public Health Agency of Canada when it comes to publicly transmitted diseases.
“Our health team on campus has reached out to our students through a memo to remind those who have recently travelled to China and in particular to Wuhan who are experiencing respiratory symptoms to contact Student Health and Wellness for assessment,” Janet Bryson said in an email. “We’ve also shared where they can find updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada.”
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said less virulent forms of the coronavirus show up every year in Nova Scotia. In the 2019-2020 respiratory disease season, four cases had been positively identified.
But the Chinese strain - dubbed 2019-nCoV - hasn’t been seen before, Strang said in an interview Friday.
“This is a novel (strain), this is a new strength,” he said, noting the SARS epidemic of 2002 was caused by another virulent coronavirus.
As for his level of concern the new virus may spread from China into Canada as SARS did, he said it would be “moderate.”
“This certainly has the potential to become much bigger and much more serious and so my job is to, along with many other public health folks, watch this very carefully and try to make sure to understand it and to bring that knowledge to the rest of the health system in Nova Scotia, so we can be appropriately prepared and respond appropriately.”
Strang said screening measures will be taken at entry points in the Nova Scotia health-care system including the health information line 811, 911, family doctors, emergency departments and walk-in clinics.
"At at all those points we now have people understanding that they need to ask two questions: Do you have a new onset of fever and cough - so symptoms that would suggest a respiratory tract infection?" Strang said. "And have you travelled in the last 14 days to Wuhan, China? That's the standard . . . screening definition that we're using across the country.
"So if people have both of those respiratory symptoms and that travel history, then we're considering them a possible coronavirus case, and what we're saying is we need to get those people into their nearest emergency room (to take) nasopharyngeal swabs from the back of their nose and throat and send them off to do the local testing for more typical viruses, as well as sending a specimen to the (national testing) lab in Winnipeg."
At this point, he said Nova Scotians should be more worried about being protected from the flu by taking such steps as getting their vaccine shot and washing their hands frequently.
While this severity of the flu season appears to be typical, “the only thing different this year is instead of getting influenza A followed up by influenza B, we're getting influenza A and B together,” he said. “Influenza B has more of an impact on children, so we're tending to get higher rates of illness among children at this point in the season.”