HALIFAX -- Many Canadians believe the threat of a coronavirus outbreak has been "overblown," according to a new poll by the Angus Reid Institute.

That was the response from 58 per cent of survey participants before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on Wednesday.

The poll was conducted online among a representative sample of 1,512 people -- 105 of them on the East Coast.

Halifax-based molecular virologist Chris Richardson is part of a newly-formed COVID-19 Research Network at Dalhousie University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. The team is working to find ways to conquer the novel coronavirus through the development of a vaccine and treatments.

"I would never panic, I would be concerned," he says. "And if you're young, you're probably in a good state, but if you're older and in a nursing home, it is more of a concern."

Richardson says COVID-19 is more infectious than SARS or the flu, but has a lower fatality rate than the former.

"COVID would have an infectivity number of two to three, SARS is about two, and influenza, depends on the strain of course, but it's just a 1.9 or so, slightly below," he adds.

The Angus Reid poll also found 52 per cent of Atlantic Canadians surveyed are most concerned with friends or family becoming sick with COVID-19. By comparison, 41 per cent are concerned about becoming sick themselves.

Richardson says those with diminished lung health or respiratory problems should also be concerned about the virus.

"It can cause pneumonia, and multi-organ failure, and cardiac problems," he adds.

More than 118,000 cases have been reported globally to date with more than 100 cases confirmed in Canada.

In recent weeks, images of empty retail shelves across the country have caused some to balk over so-called "panic buying". Others on social media have criticized what they call "hype" as major concert and sporting events in Canada have been cancelled.

Historian Jonathan Roberts says the range of reactions we’ve seen with COVID-19, is repeating a pattern that has been seen in pandemics of the past as well.

"We have a historical habit of a pattern of denial, and then a panic action, usually leading to quarantine," he says. "They know about the illness, and then they don’t want to admit until they’re absolutely certain, and then they have to do something."

Roberts teaches a course at Mount Saint Vincent University about pandemics through history.  He says while modern media may spread information more quickly, people throughout history have shown similar levels of concern despite having less access to news.  He cites reaction to the Spanish flu of 1918 as an example.

"At that time, over a hundred years ago," he says, "They're still talking about hand washing, wearing facemasks, closing down public gatherings as they did in Halifax during the Spanish flu, so it's the same kind of measures that are nothing really new when it comes to these infectious cold and flu viruses."

But Roberts says there is a positive note. Unlike in the past, quarantine measures being taken around the world with COVID-19 seem to be working, as the rate of infection slows around the world.

Back in his lab, Christopher Richardson says he believes now that a pandemic has been declared by the World Health Organization, the situation with COVID-19 will improve with time.

In the meantime, he says it’s important governments put resources into finding a vaccine for the virus as he continues his work with a team of researchers trying to conquer the coronavirus.