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Expert says coronavirus epidemic should be contained within a few weeks

The Gazette logo The Gazette 2020-01-28 Susan Schwartz, Montreal Gazette
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(Provided by CBC)

The headlines about the growing numbers of people being sickened by the new coronavirus that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan are making people anxious, to be sure. The virus has affected nearly 3,000 people, almost all in China, and killed more than 80.

But Dr. Pierre Talbot of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Laval, a scientist who has worked with the coronavirus for more than 30 years and an acknowledged expert in the field, said in an interview Monday that he believes the epidemic will be contained within the next few weeks.

The Chinese response to the epidemic has been “amazingly thorough,” with major cities in Hubei province, where the virus originated, locked down, he said. In countries including Canada, where two cases of the new virus have been identified in Toronto and there could be more, measures are in place in airports and hospitals to identify people who have the virus and to isolate those who do, he said.

Also watch: Outcry in China as coronavirus crisis grows (Provided by CBC)

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“Some media feed the hysteria. As a coronavirus expert, I believe it is my duty to calm people down,” Talbot said. “I think the epidemic will die down by itself.” 

a man looking at the camera: Professor Pierre Talbot, an expert in coronavirus, a professor at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, the research-oriented constituent university of the Université du Québec system that offers only graduate studies, and director of the Laboratory on neuroimmunovirology at the INRS in Laval. © courtesy Christian Fleury Professor Pierre Talbot, an expert in coronavirus, a professor at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, the research-oriented constituent university of the Université du Québec system that offers only graduate studies, and director of the Laboratory on neuroimmunovirology at the INRS in Laval. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses common in animal species including camels, cats and bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control in the United States. Rarely, they infect people and spread between them, as happened in the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemics.

The response to the new coronavirus epidemic is “completely different” than the response to SARS, which began in China in 2003, said Talbot, director of the INRS Laboratory on Neuroimmunovirology. “They didn’t warn people and the transmission was worrisome,” he said. China’s response this time around “is a good way to stop spreading the virus.”

He said the new coronavirus is about as serious as SARS. Although its fatality rate is currently lower, he predicted it would rise to the 10 per cent fatality rate of SARS.

“The percentage of fatalities will increase, I believe, but that is a normal thing for this virus to do,” he said. “Mutations occur with all viruses,” he explained. “So I think the virus will mutate to be more damaging.”

In mutating, the virus changes its genetic footprint as it adapts to its human host. This could make the virus more damaging, Talbot said. But the virus does not spread well and, before long, it will return to the animal reservoir where it originated, he said.

The incubation period for the new coronavirus — the time from exposure to the onset of symptoms — is about two weeks. “It seems to be a strangely long incubation period,” Talbot said. People who do not show symptoms are still able “to transmit infection with close contact.” This is true of influenza as well.

The influenza virus spreads far more effectively than the coronavirus, he said, with tens of thousands of people dying each year of flu. Although the death rate from influenza is “extremely variable,” it is higher than SARS.

Yet people seem anxious about the new coronavirus in a way that they do not about the flu.

“The reaction to this new coronavirus is strange, to my mind,” Talbot said.

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sschwartz@postmedia.com

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