Canada’s Health Minister has ordered an independent review of the country’s pandemic early warning system, after The Globe and Mail reported that the respected surveillance and research unit was silenced last year, several months before the COVID-19 outbreak hit.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the federal review will probe the shutdown of the system, as well as allegations from scientists inside the Public Health Agency of Canada that their voices were marginalized within the department, preventing key messages from making it up the chain of command.
“My hope is that we can get the review off the ground as soon as possible,” Ms. Hajdu said in an interview. “The independence of this review is critically important.”
A Globe investigation in late July detailed how the unit, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, was effectively silenced in May, 2019. The team of analysts – including doctors and epidemiologists specially trained to scour the world for health threats – were reassigned to other tasks within the government amid shifting department priorities.
Though GPHIN had garnered a stellar reputation internationally, and was dubbed a “cornerstone” of global pandemic preparedness by the World Health Organization, officials within Public Health decided in late 2018 and early 2019 that the operation was too internationally focused and could be put to better use working on domestic projects. The new work did not involve pandemic preparedness.
Those changes led to the shutdown of a special surveillance and alert system that helped Canada and the WHO gather intelligence on potentially threatening outbreaks, particularly in situations where foreign governments were trying to hide or play down the event.
Current and former scientists and doctors at Public Health also said they began to fear that their messages were not being heard, or understood, by layers of department officials who lacked a sufficient background in science. That made it difficult to convey urgent and complex information up the chain of command.
Responding to those concerns, Ms. Hajdu said her office has spent the past month looking into the problems at the departmental level, which led her to order the review.
“I’m concerned when there is an accusation that scientists are not being fully empowered, or in some way feel their voices are being blunted or muted,” Ms. Hajdu said in an interview.
“I can listen to those kinds of worries and do the kinds of things that I’m prepared to do, which is to order a review of the program and to determine whether or not the changes are actually resulting in the kind of information that Canada needs.”
Ms. Hajdu said she has asked that the review be done expeditiously, so that fixes can be identified and the recommendations implemented as soon as possible. She said that could mean having the recommendations back in six months.
“We’re working on [appointing] some professionals that would have the experience and the expertise to be able to do this review thoroughly, but also expeditiously … I don’t want this to be a two-year review,” the Health Minister said. The people leading the review are expected to be named in the coming weeks and will be independent of Public Health Canada.
Created as an experiment in the 1990s, GPHIN became a key part of Canada’s pandemic preparedness capacity after the deadly 2003 SARS outbreak, and was seen as a way to collect intelligence on global outbreaks. The point was not merely to identify the threat early, but also to monitor crucial developments and clues about the spread, often before official announcements were made by foreign governments, to speed up government decision-making.
With a team of roughly a dozen highly specialized analysts working in multiple languages, GPHIN was globally renowned for its ability to collect and disseminate credible information. It scoured more than 7,000 data points a day, including medical data, news reports, scraps of information on social media, and details on internet blogs to gather intelligence on outbreaks.
GPHIN had been credited with detecting some of the most important signals from the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in Mexico, outbreaks of Zika in West Africa, and a potentially catastrophic 2005 bird flu outbreak that the Iranian government tried to hide. As recently as two years ago, the WHO credited the Canadian unit for supplying 20 per cent of its “epidemiological intelligence.”
However, department changes effectively shuttered the operation, and limited the power of scientists inside the agency. The Globe obtained 10 years of internal GPHIN records which showed the system, which had issued more than 1,500 intelligence alerts about potential health threats over that time, went silent on May 24 last year. That coincided with a department edict that all such alerts had to be approved by senior managers inside Public Health. GPHIN analysts were shifted to domestic projects, such as tracking the effects of vaping in Canada, which effectively curtailed Canada’s surveillance of international health threats.
Past and present employees told The Globe that the system was designed to provide information to speed up Canada’s response to a dangerous outbreak such as COVID-19, including measures such as shutting down the border, quarantining travellers, enforcing physical distancing, and locking down long-term care homes.
“A lot of the work that we’ve done [over the past month] is to try to dig a little bit deeper into how this is working and why were these changes made,” Ms. Hajdu said.
GPHIN “has the potential to be a very valuable asset for Canada. It can’t be wasted,” the Health Minister said.
“The intent when there is an emerging pathogen is to close it off, to try and contain it as best as possible – at its source. So that you don’t end up in a pandemic like this again.”
The independent review follows a pair of other developments in recent weeks. Last month, the Auditor-General of Canada launched an investigation into the shutdown of the pandemic surveillance unit. And Public Health officials have restarted the GPHIN alert system.
COVID-19 has been a reckoning for governments around the world, exposing weaknesses in pandemic readiness and responsiveness. Ms. Hajdu said countries must now take stock of what needs to be done to implement stronger measures, including early warning and surveillance capacity, that will remain effective and not be eroded over time, when the memories of the crisis fade.
The federal review will look at “governance and what works best” for GPHIN, Ms. Hajdu said, adding that the messages raised by scientists inside Public Health, who took risks by speaking out publicly, resonated with her.
“In [The Globe’s] reporting, the plea from the scientists and the researchers that work in that team were particularly profound,” Ms. Hajdu said.
“There is still enough there to save, and to boost, and I think this independent review is going to be very helpful,” she said. “Obviously there is a lot of work to do.”
Globe health columnist André Picard and senior editor Nicole MacIntyre discuss the many issues surrounding sending kids back to school. André says moving forward isn't about there being no COVID-19 cases, but limiting their number and severity through distancing, smaller classes, masks and good hygiene.
The Globe and Mail
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.