How Canada’s world-class pandemic alert system failed
It should never have happened the way it did. When we should have been preparing for an epidemic and protecting Canadians, our government sat on its hands, missed obvious signals that all was not well and wasted 75 days assuring us that Canada faced a low risk.
This is the first look at a series of blunders by our federal government.
‘Without early warning you can’t have early response’
By Grant Robertson, Globe and Mail, July
Dec. 31, as word of a troubling new outbreak in China began to reverberate around the world, in news reports and on social media, a group of analysts inside the federal government and their bosses were caught completely off guard.
The virus had been festering in China for weeks, possibly months, but the Public Health Agency of Canada appeared to know nothing about it – which was unusual because the government had a team of highly specialized doctors and epidemiologists whose job was to scour the world for advance warning of major health threats. And their track record was impressive.
Some of the earliest signs of past international outbreaks, including H1N1, MERS and Ebola, were detected by this Canadian early warning system, which helped countries around the world prepare.
Known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, the unit was among Canada’s contributions to the World Health Organization, and it operated as a kind of medical Amber Alert system. Its job was to gather intelligence and spot pandemics early, before they began, giving the government and other countries a head start to respond and hopefully prevent a catastrophe. And the results often spoke for themselves.
Russia once accused Canada of spying, after GPHIN analysts determined that a rash of strange illnesses in Chechnya were the result of a chemical release the Kremlin tried to keep quiet. Impressed by GPHIN’s data-mining capabilities, Google offered to buy it from the federal government in 2008. And two years ago, the WHO praised the operation as “the foundation” of a global pandemic early warning system.
So, when it came to the outbreak in Wuhan, the Canadian government had a team of experts capable of spotting the hidden signs of a problem, even at its most nascent stages.
But last year, a key part of that function was effectively switched off.
In May, 2019, less than seven months before COVID-19 would begin wreaking havoc on the world, Canada’s pandemic alert system effectively went dark.
Amid shifting priorities inside Public Health, GPHIN’s analysts were assigned other tasks within the department, which pulled them away from their international surveillance duties.
With no pandemic scares in recent memory, the government felt GPHIN was too internationally focused, and therefore not a good use of funding. The doctors and epidemiologists were told to focus on domestic matters that were deemed a higher priority.
The analysts’ capacity to issue alerts about international health threats was halted. All such warnings now required approval from senior government officials.Soon, with no green light to sound an alarm, those alerts stopped altogether.
So, on May 24 last year, after issuing an international warning of an unexplained outbreak in Uganda that left two people dead, the system went silent.
Few if any of us knew that the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) existed or that GPHIN had provided early warnings for H1N1, MERS and Ebola infections amongst others.
The decision to shut down GPHIN was about PMO control and ignored protecting Canadians and others around the world from the devastation of serious communicable diseases. It’s hard to imagine anything more sleazy than the PMO stifling a group of specialists working within Health Canada because they were too successful. The PMO will not be outshone.
When China restricted all non-essential travel to and from Wuhan province, quarantining 50 million people Jan 26, our government was asleep at the switch:
- It was an extreme measure not possible except in a totalitarian state. It signalled that the virus could not be contained except by isolation and restricting travel.
- Travel to and from Wuhan to elsewhere in China was banned, but international travel was not. That should have rung alarm bells but didn’t.
On January 27, Health Minister Hajdu stated: “We have multiple measures to alert travellers from the affected regions about what to do if they suspect that they have the illness. We have trained our CBSA officers to ensure that they have the tools they need to support people who may be ill. We have worked with partner airlines to ensure there is information on flights.”
We were informing people about COVID symptoms and expecting them to isolate or seek medical help as needed. We put the health of our population in the hands of travellers. CBSA officers were to ‘support’ people who were ill and risk infection? That is a dumb as it gets.
On January 29, Dr. Tam, Canada’s chief Medical Officer tweeted: “I am concerned about the growing number of reports of racism and stigmatizing comments on social media directed to people of Chinese and Asian descent related to 2019-nCoV coronavirus… Racism, discrimination and stigmatizing language are unacceptable and very hurtful… Everyone has a part to play in preventing the spread of the virus. The Chinese community and all travellers from affected areas are a key part of these efforts. Racism, discrimination and stigmatizing language are unacceptable and very hurtful. These actions create a divide of Us Vs Them. Canada is a country built on the deep-rooted values of respect, diversity and inclusion.”
Tam was the official who should have been sounding the alarm. Her government silenced GPHIN the previous May. She was incapable of duplicating the analysis that GPHIN did so well and thus left the nation defenceless. She was playing a civil rights advocate/social worker role instead of acting as the guardian of public health. What disgusting revelations.