Ottawa has chosen three experts from Canada’s medical and intelligence communities to lead a review into the breakdown of the country’s pandemic early warning system, and to probe allegations that federal scientists were sidelined within the government.
The independent review marks the first major effort by the government to investigate problems at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which doctors and epidemiologists inside the department say was ill-prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak, hurting the country’s response.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu is expected to announce on Wednesday that the review will be led by former national security adviser Margaret Bloodworth, former deputy chief public health officer Paul Gully and Mylaine Breton, Canada Research Chair in Clinical Governance on Primary Health Care.
The probe, which follows a Globe and Mail investigation that uncovered the problems, will look closely at the decisions that led to the curtailing of Canada’s pandemic early warning system – known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN – less than a year before the crisis emerged.
The Globe obtained 10 years of federal records that showed the pandemic alert system within GPHIN was silenced in May, 2019, through a series of internal decisions that shuffled resources to areas that did not involve pandemic preparedness or outbreak surveillance. Experts in Canada’s security community have criticized that move as a critical failure of the country’s intelligence capacity at the worst possible time.
“This review will help determine what kind of changes are required to ensure this global public-health surveillance system serves Canadians well,” Ms. Hajdu said in a statement.
An advance copy of the government’s announcement, which was provided to The Globe, indicates that Ottawa wants to rebuild GPHIN, and bolster its pandemic warning and surveillance capacity.
“This global surveillance system has played a key role in the early detection of past international outbreaks, including H1N1, MERS and Ebola,” the statement says. It adds that the review is being undertaken, “in light of concerns expressed about this system.”
The review will also confront troubling allegations made by doctors and epidemiologists within the Public Health Agency this year. Several have said structural changes at the department over the past decade stripped scientists of their ability to speak out, and prevented them from conveying crucial information up the chain of command within the bureaucracy.
Michael Garner, a former senior science adviser at the Public Health Agency who spent 13 years there, said urgent and critically important messages often had to be “dumbed down” for officials who were appointed from federal departments to fill key roles at the agency. Often, those officials lacked a sufficient grounding in public health.
“Scientists and public-health professionals at PHAC have not had their opinions and expertise valued. As a result, decisions impacting the health of the public that PHAC makes are not adequately rooted in scientific knowledge and public-health science,” he said.
Mr. Garner, speaking out on behalf of colleagues still at the department who fear career reprisals if they are named, said the review should look at how the government staffs its departments.
“The independent review should provide an examination of where public-health experts are required throughout the federal government, especially within the Public Health Agency of Canada,” Mr. Garner said.
Given the makeup of the panel leading the review, the investigation will not only look at Canada’s pandemic readiness from a public-health perspective but also from a national security and intelligence standpoint.
Ms. Bloodworth, who served as national security adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper, also worked as deputy minister of defence and was deputy transport minister during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. She is the first woman in Canada’s intelligence community to serve as national security adviser.
Dr. Gully, one of Canada’s most prominent public-health doctors, spent 14 years in senior roles at Health Canada, and served as deputy chief public health officer from 2004 to 2006. Now a professor at the University of British Columbia, he worked on pandemic preparedness for the World Health Organization and volunteered as a field co-ordinator during the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Dr. Breton, the Canada Research Chair, is also an associate professor at the University of Sherbrooke and is a specialist on organizational structures for health care.
The independent review ordered by Ms. Hajdu is one of two federal investigations into the problems. The Auditor-General is also probing the oversight of GPHIN and the concerns raised by scientists.
In the wake of The Globe investigation, two senior officials left the Public Health Agency including the president and a vice-president, who directly oversaw the operation of the pandemic warning system. A few weeks after the investigation was published, GPHIN’s alert system was restarted, 440 days after it fell silent.
Ms. Hajdu’s office said the independent review is expected to provide a final report to the government in the spring of 2021, which will be made public. The terms of reference for the review, which will outline the specifics of the investigation, will also be made public in the coming weeks.
Mr. Garner said he and others hope the panel will closely examine the restructuring of the Public Health Agency over the past decade, and the impact of those changes. Five years ago, the Harper government installed a president who not only supersedes the Chief Public Health Officer, but also sets budget priorities and overall direction for the department.
This move, which was opposed by the Liberals in 2015 but never reversed, has caused problems, Mr. Garner said, shifting the focus away from science and causing an exodus of public-health expertise in recent years.
“The decision to place a generic bureaucrat rather than a public-health scientist at the top of the Public Health Agency has created a cascade where public-health experts are no longer present at the senior levels," Mr. Garner said.
Those experts "have largely been forced out and replaced over time by generic bureaucrats with no experience in, or understanding of, the very basic principles of public-health science.”
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