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A nurse gets a swab ready at a temporary COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, on May 15, 2020.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Ottawa turned its back on critical sources of intelligence when it decided to shut down much of its pandemic surveillance capacity last year, focusing instead on official information supplied by foreign governments, a former federal intelligence adviser says.

As the government launches an independent review into the decisions that crippled Canada’s pandemic surveillance unit in early 2019, the situation has exposed a critical lack of understanding among Public Health officials about what constitutes intelligence, according to Greg Fyffe, a former director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat.

“I think the wrong tap was turned off," said Mr. Fyffe, who headed the secretariat, which is responsible for strategic intelligence reporting across the government, from 2000 to 2008. “It’s almost incomprehensible."

His comments reflect a growing frustration inside Canada’s intelligence community that senior Public Health officials did not appreciate the value of advance warning and surveillance before curtailing operations of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN. For decades, the unit was relied upon to detect problems early, and provide continuing surveillance of outbreaks as they worsened, to help speed up government decision-making.

In cases where foreign governments are inclined to hide or play down an outbreak, analyzing signals from social media, internet blogs, local news, hospital data, people on the ground, and other sources, becomes essential to assess the real threat. However, GPHIN’s operations were restructured several months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

GPHIN is now the subject of two federal investigations. Health Minister Patty Hajdu ordered an independent review into the oversight of the highly specialized unit after a Globe investigation that detailed how its alert functions were silenced in May, 2019. The Auditor-General is also conducting a probe.

With the minister’s office expected to announce soon who will lead the independent review, that decision is under heightened scrutiny. To understand the value of operations like GPHIN, the department must understand the importance of proper intelligence gathering, and how it works, Mr. Fyffe said.

“The thing you’re trying to do here is to use every possible means to get as much information as early as you can,” he said. “In the case of a pandemic, you need every possible aerial up in the sky."

GPHIN was created in the 1990s to detect and track outbreaks so that Canada could better prepare for a pandemic. It became world-renowned for its ability to gather information on outbreaks such as H1N1, Zika and Ebola. But several people inside Public Health, whom The Globe is not identifying because they are not authorized to speak publicly, have said that a shift within the department in late 2018 and early 2019 changed how the unit operated.

Analysts were told to focus on official information, instead of working with “informal” information.

When it came to the novel coronavirus, this meant prioritizing information provided by the Chinese government and the World Health Organization over potentially valuable clues from “informal” sources that might better indicate how aggressively the virus was spreading, and what steps are needed contain it. Such information, known as open-source intelligence, was dismissed within the department as merely “rumours,” the analysts said.

“To call it informal [information] I think is extremely derogatory and extremely inaccurate," said Mr. Fyffe, who said open-source intelligence is critical in tracking other threats to national security, such as terrorism. “It’s a very highly sophisticated form of information gathering, and it’s extremely effective in getting at types of information that is not available through other means."

GPHIN had become known internationally for its ability to use open-source data, and at one point was credited with supplying the WHO with 20 per cent of its epidemiological intelligence.

“I saw [past] examples of things that GPHIN in fact had picked up – unusual orders for medicines that are only useful in certain cases, indications of shortages of certain kinds of meats, which indicates sickness among animals,” Mr. Fyffe said. “Some of the stuff is conclusive, and some of it is just – ‘Hmm. There’s something funny going on, I wonder if we can find out more.’”

A Globe investigation in July reported that GPHIN analysts were told they could no longer issue alerts about international health threats they detected without first getting senior management approval. The alerts had been a crucial part of the operation’s speed, and were used to inject urgency into government decision-making, both in Canada and among many of its allies.

As a result of the new edict, the alert system went silent, which had a cascading effect inside the department. Soon after, international surveillance and intelligence-gathering activities were also cut back. Analysts were told to focus on domestic issues that were deemed more valuable to the department.

Canada’s response to the pandemic has been criticized for underestimating the danger of the outbreak. Throughout January, February and much of March, the federal government listed the danger posed by the virus as “low” in its official risk assessments. Even after the WHO warned that the risk was high in late January, and urged countries to prepare, the government continued reporting the risk was “low” for another seven weeks, and didn’t implement strong mitigation measures until late March.

“With a pandemic, the way the geometric progression of fatalities goes, the earlier the warning by days or weeks makes a huge difference in the death rate,” Mr. Fyffe said.

The GPHIN situation may be further investigated from an intelligence standpoint, amid growing concerns that the country’s ability to identify, prepare for and monitor health threats is a matter of national security.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), which normally assesses how the country’s intelligence agencies operate, has signalled it may look into pandemic intelligence as well, to see what could be done better in the future.

“NSIRA’s role with respect to pandemics is primarily that we can review how the Government of Canada collects, safeguards, shares and actions intelligence,” NSIRA spokeswoman Tahera Mufti said. “We can review how pandemic prevention and response interplays with other national-security activities and priorities.”

Any investigation would likely begin after the pandemic subsides – though NSIRA could be called into assist other probes in the meantime, such as the Auditor-General’s investigation of GPHIN. “Our review work is done after events have occurred – not during,” Ms. Mufti said.

About 20 per cent of Canadians, or more than 7.5 million people, are estimated to be either uninsured or underinsured for prescription drug costs. A national pharmacare plan would address that, and aim to save billions of dollars. Globe health reporter Kelly Grant explains.

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