As Canada looks to rebuild its pandemic early warning system, which was curtailed less than a year before COVID-19 hit, the Biden administration has made it an urgent priority to create a similar operation of its own.
A national security directive issued late last week by U.S. President Joe Biden calls for the White House to secure funding to create a centre for “early warning and trigger systems” to “prevent, detect and respond to biological threats.”
The strategy, contained in one of several dozen executive orders made since Mr. Biden took office, says the U.S. government will treat pandemic preparedness and response as one of its “top national security priorities” and will work with other countries to guard against such threats.
The move closely resembles Canada’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, which was created in the 1990s and became internationally renowned for its ability to detect and monitor dangerous outbreaks around the world, including H1N1, Ebola and others.
More than just scouring the world for signals of a threat, GPHIN was designed to gather critical intelligence throughout the course of an outbreak, particularly in the early stages, by tracking thousands of data points, including medical information, news and on-the-ground intelligence from doctors. The goal was to inject urgency into government decisions, such as when to shore up hospitals and long-term care homes, and when containment measures like border closings, social distancing and masks should be deployed.
However, with no major health threat on the horizon, Canada began reconfiguring GPHIN’s operations in 2018, shifting resources to projects that didn’t involve pandemic preparedness and response. A Globe and Mail investigation found that by early 2019, GPHIN’s international alert system, which once provided the World Health Organization with key epidemiological intelligence, was silenced.
Ottawa is now looking at ways to restore GPHIN, but the move by the White House shows how such systems are being viewed as critical to national security in light of COVID-19.
The Public Health Agency’s handling of GPHIN, along with allegations that scientists were sidelined, are now the subject of two federal probes. The Auditor-General is examining the matter, while the Health Minister has ordered an independent federal review. The results of the review are expected this spring.
Ronald St. John, a former government epidemiologist who created GPHIN in 1994 when he realized Ottawa needed better intelligence on outbreaks, said he wasn’t surprised to see the White House decision, since COVID-19 has exposed the need for better warning and tracking systems. He said his reaction to the executive order was: “Oh, they’re going to build a GPHIN.”
Canada has been criticized for lacking urgency in its response to COVID-19, and staff inside Public Health say the curtailing of GPHIN is a key reason. Throughout January, February and early March, the government’s internal risk assessments determined that the virus posed a low threat to Canada, despite evidence in China that it was spreading rapidly between people. Official reports from Beijing played down the deadly toll the virus was taking, but GPHIN was designed to gather independent analysis to better inform those federal risk assessments.
“If you’re not there monitoring it, if you’re not looking at it, you won’t see it,” Dr. St. John said.
Details of the Biden administration’s plans are limited, but Dr. St. John said Canada should work with the U.S. network once it gets up and running.
The two countries already co-operate on intelligence matters, Dr. St. John said. “If they can do it with [security] intelligence, then my goodness, they should be able to do it with medical intelligence.”
But first, Canada needs to confront the problems with its own system. The Globe analyzed 10 years of internal government data, which showed GPHIN’s alert system went silent in May, 2019, and international pandemic surveillance efforts soon dwindled along with it.
Government documents show GPHIN learned of the outbreak on Dec. 31, 2019, after other less-sophisticated virus-tracking systems picked up social-media chatter in Asia and news reports about a strange illness. By then, however, the virus is believed to have been circulating for several weeks or months.
In previous situations, such as the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in Mexico, GPHIN was credited with discovering the problem at its earliest stages and alerting the world, giving Canada and other governments significantly more time to prepare.
As COVID-19 spread in early 2020, GPHIN’s operations continued to be constrained. Scientists inside Public Health told The Globe that analysts were told to focus on official information coming out of China, rather than unofficial intelligence. Some said they struggled to convey urgent information up the chain of command.
The federal review will set the course for GPHIN’s future. Health Minister Patty Hajdu told The Globe in September that GPHIN “has the potential to be a very valuable asset for Canada. It can’t be wasted.”
“There is still enough there to save, and to boost, and I think this independent review is going to be very helpful,” Ms. Hajdu said. “Obviously there is a lot of work to do.”
In October, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said the government must address what she called a “boom and bust” approach to preparing for pandemics. That includes deciding what GPHIN will look like in the future, once this crisis subsides.
“GPHIN is something that we should be proud of, we need to think about what the next iteration of GPHIN looks like,” Dr. Tam said. “We need to continue to remember this moment – this moment in history – and why we need those capacities.”
David Heymann, a former WHO epidemiologist based in London, said countries often hide outbreaks to protect economic interests or their reputation. But GPHIN’s intelligence, when it operated at full capacity, often forced governments to acknowledge problems.
“This is really a defence issue for Canada and for the world,” Dr. Heymann said in a recent interview. “Any investment that you make in strong disease detection, prevention and response systems helps the public health system.”
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