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GPHIN was created in the 1990s to provide Canada and its allies with the earliest possible warnings of outbreak threats, so that governments could move quickly and decisively.Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Newly released government documents paint a stark picture of how quickly Canada’s pandemic early warning system fell into decline before COVID-19 hit.

E-mails between staff at the Prime Minister’s Office show how alerts issued by the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, dropped precipitously from 2009 to 2019, when key parts of the operation were curtailed.

The numbers confirm internal Public Health Agency data obtained by The Globe and Mail last summer, which showed how Canada’s internationally renowned pandemic early warning system was effectively shuttered less than a year before COVID-19 began spreading.

GPHIN was created in the 1990s to provide Canada and its allies with the earliest possible warnings of outbreak threats, so that governments could move quickly and decisively. A Globe investigation last year detailed how GPHIN played an integral role in detecting and helping the international community respond to past outbreaks such as SARS, H1N1 and MERS.

The e-mails between PMO staff are part of a release of thousands of federal documents that are being disclosed in response to a production order for COVID-19 records that was approved by the House of Commons in October over objections from the Liberal government.

In those e-mails, PMO advisers are responding to The Globe’s GPHIN investigation, which reported that the pandemic early warning system had issued more than 1,500 alerts on potential outbreak threats between 2009 and 2019. The probe found that GPHIN suddenly fell silent on May 24, 2019, less than eight months before COVID-19 started to become a world crisis.

The investigation detailed how shifting priorities within Public Health led to GPHIN’s resources being moved to other areas. With no apparent pandemic threats on the horizon, analysts were reassigned to study domestic issues, such as the effect of vaping and the spread of syphilis in Canada. When GPHIN’s alert system went silent last year, its surveillance of international outbreaks was also significantly curtailed.

According to an e-mail between PMO staff on Oct. 8, GPHIN issued 1,598 alerts between 2009 and 2019, including 877 in 2009, the year of the H1N1 outbreak. These alerts spanned a wide range of threats – from Zika to Ebola, yellow fever and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever – and most never evolved into a crisis, though GPHIN would have kept close tabs on each situation as needed.

But the numbers began to decline sharply. After issuing 198 alerts in 2013, when an outbreak of H7N9 bird flu emerged, GPHIN’s alerts dropped in half the following year and soon declined further. By 2018, GPHIN issued just 21 alerts, a drop of 97 per cent from 2009 levels.

The e-mails suggest that as staff inside the PMO deliberated on how to respond to The Globe’s investigation, they appeared concerned about whether the Liberal government could be blamed for financial cuts to the operation, or whether the decisions that shifted GPHIN’s focus and resources inside the department rested solely with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

“PHAC may have reprioritized its efforts, but it is an Agency that gets to decide, to an extent, their own priorities – those would be internal, bureaucratic decisions, not political ones,” Elise Wagner, a senior special assistant in the PMO wrote to a colleague. “Our government did not cut funding for the global early warning system.”

The shuffling of resources within the department had a significant effect, though. GPHIN’s role was not only to detect the first signs of an outbreak, but to provide continuing, rapid intelligence of an evolving situation, so that Ottawa could quickly bolster stockpiles of personal protective equipment and ensure hospitals and long-term care homes were ready if needed.

The goal was to inject urgency into government decisions, including when to implement physical distancing, mask wearing and stricter border measures. However, scientists inside PHAC told The Globe that they struggled to get important messages up the chain of command.

Members of the Canadian intelligence community have since raised concerns about the curtailing of GPHIN, given its role in informing the government’s risk assessments on COVID-19. Through January, February and into March of 2020, Ottawa rated the outbreak a low threat to the Canadian public, even as evidence emerged about how deadly the virus was and how easily it was spreading, and despite other countries implementing unprecedented measures.

Faced with criticism over the government’s early response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wasn’t sure what role added intelligence could have played in Ottawa’s decisions, but said he regrets not acting sooner to bolster stockpiles of personal protective equipment. However, informing such decisions is exactly what GPHIN was created to do.

The federal documents show GPHIN first picked up on the outbreak on Dec. 31, 2019, after news of a strange pneumonia in China made international headlines and a New York based disease-tracker called ProMed issued an alert to doctors and hospitals around the world. Scientists now believe COVID-19 had likely been spreading several weeks by that point, and that China did not fully disclose the problem.

Epidemiologists say the speed at which governments can implement containment measures has a major effect on the spread of a virus and its death toll, even if only by a few days or a week.

The problems surrounding GPHIN are now the subject of two federal probes; the Auditor-General of Canada has launched an investigation while the Minister of Health has ordered an independent federal review. The results of both are expected sometime this spring.

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