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The coronavirus outbreak will end eventually — the question is how

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Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” For the latest coronavirus news, click here.

As the number of confirmed cases of novel coronavirus rises in Canada, health officials are scrambling to stop its spread.

Unfortunately, it’s very rare that a virus of this kind is ever completely eradicated from the earth, said Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and professor of global health, law and political science at York University in Toronto.

However, experts are confident the current outbreak — which has claimed more than 3,000 lives globally — will eventually fizzle out.

READ MORE: Homemade hand sanitizer — Can it protect you from the new coronavirus?

Hoffman predicts it will end in one of two ways.

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The first is that COVID-19 stops spreading as a result of “effective public health interventions like isolation, hand-washing and making sure we don’t go to work when we’re sick,” he said.

The other possibility is that it becomes as ubiquitous as the flu.

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“[Then it would] no longer be viewed as such a big deal, in the same way that the seasonal flu isn’t viewed as such a big deal,” Hoffman said. “The flu is a big deal. It affects a lot of Canadian people who die every year, but it’s a risk that we’re comfortable with because it’s familiar to us.”
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Despite the widespread availability of influenza vaccines, the viral infection is still estimated to cause 12,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada each year, according to Statistics Canada.

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The hope is that changing weather in the northern hemisphere may also help slow the spread of the virus.

READ MORE: Canada issues travel advisory as Italy grapples with coronavirus

“We’re currently in the winter [which] oftentimes creates an environment that allows more [germs to] spread,” Hoffman said. “The hope would be that when it gets warmer … there will be a less friendly climate for COVID-19.”

However, experts in Canada aren’t certain about this yet because they haven’t seen any cases of novel coronavirus in spring or summer weather.

How similar outbreaks have ended

If anything, some lessons have been learned from past outbreaks around the world.

The 2014 Ebola virus outbreak that ravaged West Africa was put to a stop with the help of vaccines and antiviral medications, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). When it reemerged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018, the vaccine developed four years earlier was used to treat patients.

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There is currently no vaccine or antiviral medication available for COVID-19, but scientists are working on them.

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The 2003 outbreak of SARS — another strain of coronavirus that infected more than 8,000 people — was contained with isolation and other public health interventions, like hand-washing.

The current outbreak of COVID-19 will eventually end. Until then, it’s important that Canadians remain calm and put the individual risk into perspective.

Panic doesn’t match the risk in Canada

“When we look at the risk posed by this virus … it remains very small compared to everyday activities that we do and don’t perceive to be risky,” Hoffman said.

“Things like walking across the street pose a risk that we could be hit by a truck, and indeed, in Canada, too many people get hit by cars every day.”

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The same confusion erupted during the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, Devon Greyson previously told Global News. She’s an assistant professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts.

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“Unknown risks are difficult to weigh, and often feel scarier to people than actual known risks. We are seeing this now when people panic about the novel coronavirus but haven’t gotten the flu shot,” she said.

“Influenza seems familiar to people so it does not feel as scary as a new virus.”

People are stockpiling medical supplies, misinformation about the virus is on the rise, and the stock market has plunged due to COVID-19 fears — all of which indicate to Hoffman that the public reaction to novel coronavirus has been overblown.

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“We certainly need a robust public health response, [but] the good news is we’re seeing that globally — particularly in Canada, which I think is doing a fantastic job of responding to this outbreak,” he said.

“At the same time, we need to ensure that our reaction to the virus doesn’t become more dangerous than the virus itself.”

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca