Hajdu orders a review of pandemic alert system after scientists claim warnings were ignored

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has ordered an independent review of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) in response to claims by some scientists that their early warnings about the threat of COVID-19 were ignored or inadequately addressed by senior staff at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The network, a federal government-run monitoring and analysis unit, alerts senior officials to health risks around the globe by compiling media reports and other intelligence about outbreaks.

Created in the 1990s, the network serves as an early warning system for Canada and the World Health Organization (WHO). It identified the threat posed by both the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2009 H1N1 flu before other agencies.

The GPHIN flagged a new pneumonia-like virus in Wuhan, China at the end of December 2019. The Globe and Mail has reported on internal concerns about the efficacy of the reporting system after changes made in 2018 and 2019 shifted the network’s focus away from monitoring global health trends to a more domestic role.

The paper reported that a team of analysts was reassigned last year to other tasks within the government — a change which led to a partial shutdown of a special surveillance and alert system that helped Canada and the WHO gather intelligence on potentially threatening outbreaks.

CBC News also reported in April on concerns about the network’s alerts not being as widely disseminated as they had been during past health crises.

“We were concerned to learn of reports that GPHIN analysts felt that they were not able to proceed with their important work, and that some scientists didn’t feel fully empowered,” a spokesperson for Hajdu said in a statement.

“That’s why we have ordered a full and expeditious independent review of GPHIN, led by professionals and experts from outside of the Public Health Agency of Canada. This independent review is an important step in restoring GPHIN and ensuring that it can continue its valuable contributions to public health in Canada and around the world.”

Asked Tuesday if she was aware of some scientists claiming their warnings about the threat of COVID-19 were not properly heeded by senior public health leaders, Dr. Theresa Tam said she would wait for the results of the review before commenting.

Canada’s chief public health officer said she did read the GPHIN reports in early January about the Wuhan outbreak cluster and insisted the system continues to function, despite some changes to its mandate last year.

“We will address any findings and recommendations accordingly,” Tam told reporters.

“Preempting what their findings are isn’t very helpful at this time. I think the purpose should be that we strengthen early warning globally and whatever Canada can contribute to that will be very helpful.”

She said the pandemic experience will leave behind “lessons learned” that can inform government’s responses to future health emergencies.

The federal government has been accused in some circles of being too slow to respond to the pandemic.

The medical unit of the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command briefed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the COVID-19 crisis on January 17, 2020 — but it took another 10 days for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to convene his incident response group to plan Canada’s pandemic response.

As reported previously by CBC, based on documents presented before the House of Commons health committee, much of the government’s focus in the early days of the pandemic was on repatriating Canadians from Hubei province and cruise ships while international borders remained open with minimal screening.

As late as March 10, a department-drafted briefing note prepared for Hajdu ahead of question period was saying that — with just 12 cases being reported nationwide at that point (even though publicly available numbers already had climbed higher) — “the risk of spread of this virus within Canada remains low at this time.”

The note also said the public health system is “well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad, limiting the spread in Canada.”

A month later, Canada would have more than 21,000 cases, many of them linked to travel to China, Europe and U.S.

The federal purchasing department was also slow to sign contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE).

The public servants who manage the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS) warned in early February that there was a shortage of the PPE needed to weather a pandemic — but it took weeks for the federal government to sign contracts for goods like N95 respirators, the masks used by health care professionals to protect themselves from COVID-19.

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