Thank you for the opportunity to address the Standing Committee on Health regarding the Public Health Agency of Canada's efforts to prepare for and respond to the arrival of novel coronavirus in Canada.
l'm here today with Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, and Dr. Stephen Lucas, deputy minister for Health Canada.
Currently, our objective is confinement, to limit the impact and spread of the virus. That includes detecting and treating existing cases effectively and managing disinformation in order to reduce fear.
Federal, provincial and municipal approaches must be uniform. Collaboration is imperative.
To this point, the response to cases of the virus in Canada shows a high level of intergovernmental coordination. This means that the system is working as expected.
Mr. Chair, we have learned a lot, not only from SARS, but also from the H1N1 pandemic and, most recently, the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There have been key improvements made in Canada with respect to our capacity to respond to these types of situations.
We've had the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada, to provide clear leadership federally during a response. We have enhanced federal-provincial-territorial collaboration through a formal network of public health experts led by Dr. Tam, which is called the Public Health Network Council. We also have a chief public health officer, whose role was born out of the SARS experience, to ensure an authoritative voice to all Canadians during a public health event, which is essential.
As I think everybody knows, the situation is evolving in Canada, as it is around the world. Since the initial identification of a cluster of cases in Wuhan, China, in late December, there are now over 6,000 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in 31 provinces in China, including 133 deaths. Ninety-nine per cent of the cases are in China, with the majority in Wuhan.
Closer to home, within the United States there are five confirmed cases, and in Canada three—two in Ontario and one in British Columbia. We expect that the number of confirmed cases in China and other countries will continue to rise as monitoring efforts continue to increase and more individuals present themselves to health providers with symptoms and are diagnosed.
It's not unexpected for us to have travel-related cases in Canada. The health system has been on alert since we first heard of the outbreak in China at the end of December, and it has remained vigilant to detect potential cases and to respond as quickly as possible as soon as they are recognized.
Where are we focusing our efforts, from a federal perspective? In terms of border measures, at the three airports that accept direct flights from China—Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal—we now have information on screens in the customs hall, in French, English and simplified Chinese, which tells individuals to self-identify to a border services agent if they are experiencing the novel coronavirus symptoms.
We have a health screening question that has been added to the electronic kiosks at all three of those airports, which asks travellers if they have been to Wuhan. As of today, this question will reference the whole of Hubei province. By the end of week, we will have more public health staff deployed in airports to complement CBSA screening in customs halls and to provide information about what individuals should do if they experience any symptoms.
We have been working very hard to mobilize the public health system across the country. The Public Health Agency is regularly convening provincial counterparts to share information and diagnostic capacity and to develop guidance for our health response, under the leadership of Dr. Tam. We've had significant engagement with provinces and territories, since at the end of the day they are the front-line response that's very much involved in dealing with cases on the ground.
We now have a federal-provincial-territorial special advisory committee that's been struck, focused exclusively on the novel coronavirus. The is also engaging with her PT counterparts to discuss collective readiness and encourage collaboration. Of course, we're working very closely with international partners, including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States.
In terms of monitoring and reporting, monitoring illness due to the novel coronavirus is essential to containing its spread. We are working closely with provinces and territories and the World Health Organization to track the spread of this virus. Our National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg has the test for the novel virus and is working collaboratively with provinces and territories to increase testing capacity across the country.
Our lab in Winnipeg is also our reference lab, which is confirming provincial and territorial test results, given that this is a new virus. Canada of course is obligated under the international health regulations to report confirmed cases of coronavirus to the World Health Organization.
After a case is confirmed, the focus shifts to contact tracing to determine if others have been infected. Contact tracing is led by local public health authorities, in collaboration with provincial and federal agencies such as federal border and quarantine services, airlines and public health agencies in other countries. The cases in Ontario and British Columbia were managed using appropriate infection protection and control measures.
In terms of research and vaccines, we have been working internationally in contributing to the mobilization of an international response. Through Global Affairs investments, Canada is funding a global alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which is coordinating early international efforts for vaccine development. Also, we are working with existing partners to pursue research studies to characterize the virus, develop animal models and explore candidate vaccines that can contribute to international vaccine development efforts.
There must be a proactive approach to communications. We must reassure Canadians by providing them with regular and transparent updates in order to combat disinformation on the matter. This is a vital lesson we learned from our experience with SARS, when a situation arose in which some Chinese communities and individuals were the victims of racism and racial profiling. We must confront that problem from the outset. Many of our efforts are focused on countermeasures to messages that may be spread through social media.
Dr. Tam and her colleague, the deputy chief public health officer of Canada Dr. Howard Njoo, are also engaging regularly with the media through technical updates.
As well, we are providing advice to Canadian travellers, through travel.gc.ca, to help them make informed choices about travelling to China and elsewhere: to help reduce the risk of getting sick, and the steps to take if they exhibit symptoms associated with coronavirus. We also now have a 1-800 line that Canadians can call to get information about the coronavirus.
Dr. Tam is also undertaking outreach to national health professional organizations. There is regular communication with federal workers and federally regulated employers with information on occupational health and safety in terms of this particular virus.
As I mentioned, we have a coronavirus information line that's now live for Canadians, which provides answers to specific questions. We've been engaging with other stakeholders, such as air carriers, to ensure that they understand their role, pursuant to the Quarantine Act, about notifying us in the event that they have a sick traveller on their conveyance prior to their arrival in Canada, so that we are able to deal with that effectively once the person touches down and breaches our shores. Of course, they are interested as well in the protection of their own staff.
Finally, I would like to thank the Standing Committee on Health for taking the time to examine the coronavirus situation. We are actively monitoring its appearance and continuously assessing the risk it poses for Canadians. At the same time, we are actively working to contain the virus in order to limit its spread.
As I noted already, we have been working very hard with our partners, and we will continue to do that on the way forward.
Mr. Chair, we would be very pleased to answer your questions.