The Public Health Agency of Canada has installed new management to oversee and “strengthen” the country’s pandemic surveillance system, a once-globally renowned unit whose capabilities were curtailed less than a year before the COVID-19 crisis hit.
In a statement provided to The Globe and Mail, the department said Brigitte Diogo, a senior official with 25 years of experience in government, has taken over as the vice-president of the Health Security Infrastructure Branch. The division oversees the government’s pandemic early warning and surveillance unit, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, among other operations, such as an emergency stockpile of medical supplies.
Sally Thornton, who previously served in that role, left the government last week, the department said. “After a long and distinguished career, Ms. Thornton is retiring from the federal public service,” Public Health spokeswoman Natalie Mohamed said in an e-mailed statement.
Ms. Thornton declined requests for an interview. Ms. Diogo was also not available for comment, the department said.
GPHIN has been at the centre of controversy since a Globe investigation in late July detailed how the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the government’s pandemic early warning system were reduced significantly in late 2018 and early 2019. That effectively shut down much of its surveillance work on international health threats less than eight months before the outbreak in China began to spread, and appears to have impacted Canada’s ability to gauge the risk of the virus.
Throughout January, February and much of March, the government judged the threat from the outbreak as “low” in its official risk assessments, even after the World Health Organization warned in late January that the risk to the world was high.
In her new role, Ms. Diogo’s mandate will include bolstering the surveillance system, although no specifics were provided.
“Ms. Diogo will lead efforts to maintain and strengthen Canada’s public health event-based surveillance system including the Global Public Health Intelligence Network,” department spokesman Eric Morrissette said in a statement.
In late 2018, believing that GPHIN was too internationally focused and could be put to better use on domestic projects, the department reassigned doctors and epidemiologists in the highly specialized unit to projects that didn’t involve pandemic preparedness. A once-prolific alert system operated by GPHIN, designed to track evolving health threats and inject urgency into government responses, was effectively shuttered when a new edict required that Ms. Thornton approve all such alerts.
With no approvals given, the alert system eventually went silent on May 24, 2019, according to 10 years' worth of PHAC records obtained by The Globe. With it, much of the unit’s surveillance activities – designed to track early signals of an outbreak and inform government risk assessments – effectively shut down as well.
The alert system remained silent for 440 days, and was restarted only last month, less than two weeks after the Globe investigation. During the intervening months, employees inside Public Health say GPHIN’s intelligence-gathering abilities were a fraction of what they once were. Created in the 1990s, GPHIN had garnered international acclaim for its ability to detect and gather continuing intelligence on outbreaks of diseases such as H1N1, Ebola, Zika and others, helping the government formulate a response if needed.
In addition to GPHIN, Ms. Thornton also oversaw the national emergency stockpile of medical supplies, which came under heavy scrutiny this spring after it fell short of supplying the provinces and territories with badly needed personal protective equipment.
In April, Ms. Thornton testified before the House of Commons Health Committee that the stockpile held a “minimum level” of equipment, and wasn’t designed to handle the surge of a pandemic, raising questions about how it was being managed.
The Globe has made several requests since May to interview department officials connected to GPHIN, including Ms. Thornton. All of those requests were declined.
Last week, Health Minister Patty Hajdu ordered an independent federal review of the problems at GPHIN, saying she was troubled that scientists at Public Health told The Globe they were not being listened to within the department. The Auditor-General has also launched an investigation.
Scientists within Public Health told The Globe that over the past decade, the department has suffered from an influx of senior officials from other areas of the government, such as the Treasury Board, Border Services and others, who lacked sufficient grounding in Public Health. Epidemiologist Michael Garner, a former senior science adviser at the agency, said it became difficult for scientists to communicate urgent and complex messages up the chain of command, because those officials often didn’t comprehend the problems.
Ms. Diogo, who moves over from Transport Canada, has no science background, which may add to such concerns. However, Mr. Morrissette said she has extensive experience working on safety and security policy, and on program design and delivery.
“While a newcomer to the agency, Ms. Diogo understands the merit of a well-functioning, event-based surveillance system including the timely dissemination of information such as alerts, to inform decision-making in addressing public health threats,” Mr. Morrissette said.
According to information from the department, Ms. Diogo was director-general of rail safety at Transport Canada from 2015-20, and director of operations at the Security and Intelligence Secretariat in the Privy Council Office, where she oversaw matters related to national security from 2011-14. She also has a background in risk mitigation while at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the department said.
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