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Coronavirus: Can Canadians expect another pandemic like COVID-19 in the future?

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As health officials in Canada and abroad continue to struggle to contain the novel coronavirus, which has now infected more than 298,000 people worldwide, many questions remain unanswered.

One question that is top of mind for many Canadians is whether an outbreak of this magnitude could happen again, and if this is going to become the new normal.

Here’s what experts say.

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Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, said “unfortunately” we can’t predict the frequency of outbreaks or pandemics.

“For example, with influenza, the time periods between pandemics seem to range from 8-40 years,” he wrote in an email to Global News. “We will undoubtedly see the emergence and re-emergence of viruses across the globe (e.g. Ebola virus, Zika virus, Nipah virus etc.)”

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Enforcing the recommendations amid the COVID-19 pandemic
Enforcing the recommendations amid the COVID-19 pandemic

In a previous interview with Global News, Kindrachuk said there are a “plethora of viruses” that we have not yet identified that circulate in nature and have the potential to “spill over into humans and animals.”

“We can’t predict whether we’re going to see, you know, worse viruses or more deadly viruses,” he said. “What we can say is that we will absolutely see spillovers of other viruses and of new viruses.

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Craig Janes, director of the school of public health at the University of Waterloo, said when it comes to these types of viruses, humans are the “victims of natural processes.”

He said most of the novel viruses that emerge — like COVID-19 — which the population has no immunity to are zoonotic.

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“So they’re coming from animals,” he said.

“They’re crossing the species barrier from animals to humans mutating to human transmission.”

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He said researchers have been predicting this type out outbreak for a while, due to a few factors.

“We have climate change [and] changing ecologies,” he said. “You have dense populations with population growth, interacting with animals in different ways,” he said. “And we’ve created this kind of, if you will, this opportunity for these organisms β€” these viruses β€” to make this jump.”
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It’s believed this novel coronavirus began in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where, like many other markets in Asia, farmed and exotic animals are tied up or stacked in cages. Many are killed on-site to ensure freshness.

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The markets are considered breeding grounds for new and dangerous infections, health experts say, because the close contact between humans and live exotic animals makes it easier for viruses to jump between species. SARS originated from the same type of market in 2003.

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Kindrachuk said this novel coronavirus outbreak should serve as “somewhat of a wake-up call” that even viruses with a low fatality rate can have “major, major public health issues globally.”

Kindrachuk said what we will learn from this pandemic are the factors that contributed to the “emergence and spread of the virus,” and how we can better prepare for these types of events globally.

According to Kindrachuk, the pandemic also points to the need for local, national and international pandemic preparedness plans.

Coronavirus outbreak: Canada working with commercial airlines to repatriate stranded citizens
Coronavirus outbreak: Canada working with commercial airlines to repatriate stranded citizens

“We are never going to be able to be 100 per cent prepared for every virus because we haven’t identified all the viruses yet,” he said. “What we do need is we need to have at least some common path forward, so that if and when these things happen, we have a coordinated effort to at least try to contain them at the point of spillover.”

READ MORE: Here’s how the Spanish Flu is similar and different from the coronavirus

Janes too said while this will not be the last outbreak, it’s difficult to determine when it will happen again.

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“Whether it’s going to happen next year or the year after that, I think this is unknown,” he said.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, as of 9 a.m. ET on Saturday, there were 1,048 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with the majority reported in Ontario and B.C.

In response to the outbreak, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has closed Canada’s borders to foreign travellers, and health officials have asked Canadians to stay home whenever possible and to practice social distancing in order to limit the virus’ spread.

Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario premier says government ‘ready’ if further provincial lockdown needed
Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario premier says government ‘ready’ if further provincial lockdown needed

Janes said he hopes after this pandemic is over, Canada will think about whether it has the scientific capacity and leadership necessary to deal with these types of public health emergencies.

“Do we have a public health system that’s integrated both at the federal [level] and integrates the provinces that allows us to do the research and respond effectively?” Janes said.

What’s more, in the future, Janes said as a “high-income country” with a large university system, Canada should join other countries in leading and “identifying hotspots for the emergence of these viruses.”

“That’s really our best hope,” he said.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing β€” very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

–With a file from Global News’ Rachael D’amore