What is the controversy?
The controversy that has engulfed the Public Health Agency of Canada and its pandemic early warning system, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, is twofold.
First, as a Globe and Mail investigation revealed on July 25, the federal government silenced GPHIN’s highly regarded international alert system for outbreaks early last year, and curtailed much of its pandemic surveillance activity – less than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Second, past and present doctors and epidemiologists at Public Health have spoken out to The Globe, saying they were increasingly marginalized within the department, and struggled to get important messages up the chain of command because of senior officials who lacked a sufficient understanding of science. A former senior science adviser said crucial information about outbreaks often had to be “dumbed down” and that science has become “devalued” within the department over the past several years, which led to problems when the pandemic hit.
What is GPHIN?
The Global Public Health Intelligence Agency, known inside the federal government by its acronym GPHIN (pronounced Gee-Fin), was created in the mid-1990s after Canada was caught off guard when a sudden outbreak of pneumonic plague in India sparked panic over air travel from that country, including among staff at Toronto’s Pearson International airport. Health officials wanted to devise a system that could provide early warning of problems, so that Canada could better prepare, since even a few days or a week can mean a dramatic difference in containing outbreaks and preventing deaths.
GPHIN began as an international news monitoring system in the early days of the internet, but eventually grew in sophistication. Bolstered after the 2003 SARS crisis, the unit expanded to employ highly specialized doctors and epidemiologists, working in multiple languages, whose job was to detect the earliest signals of outbreaks. It became a combination of machine learning and human analysis. GPHIN developed algorithms to comb through news reports from around the world, while analysts scrutinized clues on social media, internet blogs, in hospital data, financial reports, and by talking to medical sources on the ground. For example, an unusual fluctuation in hog futures in one country might suggest a hidden outbreak of swine flu. GPHIN once successfully detected an undisclosed problem in China by scrutinizing the financial reports of a company that made antivirals, noticing surging sales in one particular region.
The goal was to gather unofficial intelligence in cases where certain countries were inclined to hide outbreaks from the world. Its job was not merely to detect an outbreak, but also to provide continuing surveillance so that Canada and other countries could act faster as a problem grew. The World Health Organization relied on GPHIN for 20 per cent of its epidemiological intelligence.
What happened to GPHIN?
Over the years, with no major threats materializing, the government grew weary of GPHIN, and sought to use its resources for other purposes. Officials inside Public Health questioned GPHIN’s international focus, and whether it needed to be combing the world for hints of problems. In an effort to curtail those operations, a department edict in late 2018 required that GPHIN analysts could no longer issue outbreak alerts without senior management approval. This effectively shut down the warning system. The Globe obtained 10 years of Public Health records that showed how quickly this happened. With no management approvals, GPHIN issued its final warning on May 24, 2019, about a strange deadly outbreak in Uganda, then went silent.
Halting the alerts had a cascading effect. Pandemic surveillance was soon curtailed and much of GPHIN’s intelligence capacity dwindled. Analysts were reassigned to domestic projects the government considered more valuable, such as studying the impact of vaping in Canada. By the time the COVID-19 outbreak took hold in China, GPHIN was a shadow of its former self. The earliest signs of trouble, which would have been detectable before the first reports of the novel coronavirus began emanating from China, were missed, analysts said.
What were the implications of GPHIN being cut back?
As an intelligence unit, one of GPHIN’s key functions was to help inform Canada’s risk assessments for an outbreak, which helps the government decide how quickly to respond and what measures are needed. However, with GPHIN’s role dramatically reduced, the government has faced criticism over the accuracy of its official risk assessments. For much of January, February and March, Canada maintained the virus posed a “low” threat to Canada, even as COVID-19 was spreading aggressively around the world, with mounting evidence of human-to-human transmission. Even when the WHO changed its rating to “high" at the end of January, and warned countries to prepare, Canada maintained its low-risk rating for another seven weeks, until mid-March, when it began urging Canadians to physically distance.
Scientists inside Public Health and GPHIN have said the government placed a higher priority on official information from China and the WHO than on the unofficial intelligence gathered by the analysts. Such unofficial intelligence would have indicated the problem was more urgent than Beijing was letting on. Early on, GPHIN analysts learned some of their early warnings weren’t making it up the chain of command to top officials.
What has the fallout been?
Two investigations have been launched into the oversight of GPHIN and the complaints from scientists within Public Health. Canada’s Auditor-General is investigating the matter and Health Minister Patty Hajdu ordered an independent federal review.
Top management has also been shuffled amid the controversy. The government announced Public Health president Tina Namiesniowski was stepping down, and would be replaced by former National Research Council head Iain Stewart. As president of the agency, Ms. Namiesniowski not only oversaw GPHIN but also the national emergency stockpile, which was also beset by problems early in the pandemic. The government also announced that Sally Thornton, the vice-president of the Health Security Infrastructure Branch who oversaw the approvals for GPHIN alerts, had retired.
Intelligence experts have criticized the government for not understanding the significance of pandemic surveillance, and its role in national security.
In early August, the GPHIN alert system was suddenly restarted after 440 days of silence.
What happens now?
The Auditor-General’s investigation will be completed late this year or early next year. The probe is now a top priority within that office, sources close to the situation have told The Globe. Ms. Hajdu has said she wants the independent federal review completed sooner than later, and has put a six-month time frame on the process, which means its findings would be made public in February or March. Both investigations are expected to take a close look at GPHIN, and a broader look at Public Health, and how scientists and bureaucrats work within the department.
As the new president of Public Health, Mr. Stewart’s tasks will include quelling the frustration of scientists within the department who have argued structural changes to the agency over the years, including an influx of senior officials from departments such as the Treasury Board and the Canada Border Services Agency, has led to a deterioration of the department’s scientific capacity. Though not a scientist himself, Mr. Stewart ran the NRC for four years and served as assistant vice-president of research at Dalhousie University in Halifax for three years.
Grant Robertson on the GPHIN controversy
How COVID-19 caught us off guard
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