Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged on Tuesday that Canada must improve its pandemic preparedness, after an independent federal review called for changes to the way Ottawa gathers intelligence on health threats and assesses the risk of an outbreak.
The independent review, which was commissioned by the government and released on Monday, detailed oversight problems with Canada’s pandemic early-warning system before COVID-19 struck and as the virus spread in early 2020, saying federal risk assessments require more accountability.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said the government would consider the recommendations in the 82-page report.
“We’re going to look very carefully at how we can move forward, not just in regards to that particular department or agency, but indeed across the government to make sure we are better prepared for any future pandemics,” Mr. Trudeau said.
“There’s always things that we could’ve, should’ve done better. And we will certainly move forward on improving our whole range of systems so that in the future, governments will be even better positioned to get through these pandemics than we were.”
Through January, February and much of March last year, the government repeatedly stated COVID-19 posed a low or minimal risk to Canadians, quoting its own official risk assessments. However, two federal reports have now criticized that process – and the government’s use of intelligence to assess the threat.
A report from the Auditor-General of Canada in March called the system flawed, saying the government’s risk assessments weren’t properly designed to gauge the threat of a virus before it arrived in Canada.
And on Monday, the independent review found the pandemic early-warning system, which was designed to gather intelligence and inject urgency into government decision-making on a continuing basis, had become sidelined within government and was not used properly.
The pandemic early-warning system, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, has been under scrutiny for the past year, since a Globe and Mail investigation reported the operation was allowed to deteriorate within the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in the years before COVID-19 struck. Budget cuts during the Harper government reduced its staff numbers, while shifting priorities under the Trudeau government moved analysts to roles that did not involve outbreak detection or surveillance. In 2019, the unit’s internationally respected pandemic alert system was silenced.
A common misconception about GPHIN is it is intended solely for initial detection of an outbreak, and would have played no role in pandemic response throughout the early months of 2020, after the virus became known outside China on Dec. 30, 2019. However, the system created in the 1990s and expanded after the SARS crisis in 2003, was designed for continuing intelligence gathering, providing government with evolving information during an outbreak that would help speed up decisions on how to respond. This could include when to bolster the emergency stockpile, require physical distancing, protect long-term care homes or introduce stricter airport restrictions and border controls.
The Auditor-General’s report and the independent review found problems with how the pandemic early-warning system was deployed. Scientists inside PHAC who are not authorized to speak publicly have told The Globe they often struggled to get information up the chain of command within the department.
The review has called on the government to have public health and GPHIN work closer with Canada’s security and intelligence community, treating pandemics as both a national security threat and a public-health risk. The review also called on the government to launch a risk assessment office to bring more accountability to the process.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu, who ordered the review last fall, said she welcomed the report, but did not provide details on whether the government would implement all of its recommendations or how quickly.
“We have learned many important lessons over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ms. Hajdu said in a statement Tuesday. “The panel’s review and recommendations for GPHIN will support the ongoing efforts of [public health] as they continue to improve and streamline their operations and procedures.”
A PHAC spokesman said the agency would “develop an action plan within the next four months to respond and make further improvements to GPHIN,” based on the recommendations of both the independent review and the Auditor General’s report.
Ron St. John, the epidemiologist who created GPHIN in the 1990s and was head of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness at PHAC, said the review identified some of the key problems in the department. Since the SARS crisis, it underwent several management shuffles, and successive regimes lost sight of how GPHIN operated and what it was designed to do, he said.
“I think it just got lost. Nobody could appreciate or understand what the objective was. And for whatever reason, they started to muzzle it or shut it down, or whatever term you wish to use,” Dr. St. John said. “But information is only as useful as the use to which you put it. If you don’t use the information, then why bother?”
The report calls for GPHIN to collaborate more with international pandemic warning systems, such as new operations the United States and Germany are building. It also calls for GPHIN to work with universities and private-sector players so the system can keep up with technological change, such as advancements in artificial intelligence used to scan the internet daily for hints of outbreaks, including local news and social media, or medical data.
Those are good proposals, Dr. St. John said. But he added a “top-down” effort from the Health Minister may be required to ensure the recommendations are implemented. “How many reports end up on the shelf gathering dust? Probably a lot. I’m hoping the minister will be interested enough to push,” he said.
Michael Garner, a former senior science adviser at PHAC, said he was disappointed the review didn’t get at the root cause of why GPHIN was sidelined, which stems from the agency importing too many senior personnel from other departments without a proper grounding in public health.
“It’s a lack of understanding of the stakes of a pandemic,” Mr. Garner said. “It’s a question of focus. You need the right people doing the right things.”
Wesley Wark, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in national security and intelligence, said the review’s finding that the government needs better risk assessments on outbreaks is important. However, he added, the review lacked a clear sense of how PHAC would work more closely with Canada’s security intelligence community. “It doesn’t have any concrete recommendations in that regard,” he said.
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