Canada’s Auditor-General is planning to investigate what went wrong with the country’s once-vaunted early warning system for pandemics after the unit curtailed its surveillance work and ceased issuing alerts more than a year ago, raising questions about whether it failed when it was needed most.
Sources close to the matter said the Auditor-General is planning to probe the government’s handling of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, which was a central part of the country’s advance surveillance, early detection and risk-assessment capacity for outbreaks.
The Globe and Mail reported on Saturday that a key part of GPHIN’s function was effectively shut down last spring, amid changing government priorities that shifted analysts to other work. According to 10 years of documents obtained by The Globe, the system went silent on May 24 last year, after issuing more than 1,500 alerts over the past decade about potential outbreaks including MERS, H1N1, avian flu and Ebola.
GPHIN was part of Canada’s contribution to the World Health Organization. Those alerts often helped Canada, the WHO and other countries assess outbreaks at their earliest stages to determine the urgency of the situation. It was responsible for alerting the WHO to the first signs of several potentially catastrophic events, including a 2009 outbreak of H1N1 in Mexico, a 2005 flare-up of bird flu in Iran that the government there tried to hide, and the 1998 emergence of SARS in China.
According to federal documents, “approximately 20 per cent of the WHO’s epidemiological intelligence” came from GPHIN. But sources from inside the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said the analysts were stripped of their ability to independently issue alerts in late 2018. Those alerts, which had garnered GPHIN a global reputation as a leader in pandemic intelligence, had to be approved by senior management, a move that ultimately silenced the system.
Several past and present employees told The Globe that the government had grown wary of GPHIN’s mandate in recent years, believing it was too internationally focused, given that pandemic events were rare. Analysts were given domestic projects to focus on that didn’t involve global surveillance, and the operation’s early-warning capacity soon suffered. Over the past decade, doctors inside Public Health also began to fear their messages weren’t being heard, or understood, on important topics, the employees said, which affected Canada’s readiness for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Auditor-General is also planning to look at Canada’s risk assessments during the pandemic, which may have affected the speed and urgency of mitigation measures, such as border closings, airport shutdowns and the use of protective masks. Throughout January, February and into March, the government maintained the risk the virus posed to Canada was “Low,” even as evidence of human-to-human spread became increasingly evident around the world. Canada didn’t elevate its risk rating to “High” until March 16, nearly seven weeks after the WHO declared the global risk was high and urged countries to start preparing.
The Office of the Auditor-General has previously signalled that it would be taking a critical look at the federal government’s response to COVID-19, but the probe of GPHIN is now among its top priorities, according to sources familiar with the matter. The sources were not authorized to speak publicly and the Auditor-General, as a matter of course, does not comment publicly on its investigations. The work is to be completed late this year or early next year.
“It’s still early in the process,” said Vincent Frigon, spokesman for the Office of the Auditor-General. “We don’t comment on ongoing audits, however when we do have a better idea of what’s the scope of the audit we should be able to release the information. … We should have a more specific timeline later this year.”
A PHAC spokesman said the agency would assist in the audit. “The Auditor-General plays an important role in Canada’s democracy as a key Officer of Parliament,” PHAC said in an e-mailed statement. “The Public Health Agency of Canada is fully prepared to assist the Office of the Auditor-General as they work on their audit of the Government’s pandemic preparedness and response.”
Few outside GPHIN knew the operation had curtailed its outbreak surveillance work to the extent it had. When a senior public health official addressed the WHO in November, the government described the system as still active. In a 2018 assessment of Canada’s pandemic preparedness capabilities, the WHO referred to GPHIN as the “cornerstone” of Canada’s pandemic response capability, and “the foundation” of global early warning, where signals are “rapidly acted upon” and “trigger a cascade of actions” by governments.
The unit, which involves roughly a dozen highly trained epidemiologists and doctors fluent in multiple languages, began as an experiment in the 1990s during the advent of the internet, but was elevated after the 2003 SARS crisis, when Canada realized it needed to be better prepared for serious outbreaks.
When fully operational, it was a combination of machine learning and human analysis, with GPHIN’s algorithms sifting through more than 7,000 data points from around the world each day, from local news reports and online discussions to arcane medical data, searching for unusual patterns. Those were then narrowed down for closer analysis by medical experts.
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