Ottawa orders review after report pandemic warning system was shuttered

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has ordered a review following reports that the federal pandemic early warning system was shut down last year, and that the officials working on it were silenced, just months before the global outbreak of the coronavirus.

As the world continues to grapple with the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been repeated questions about how the virus — which originated in China — was able to spread so quickly and whether earlier detection could have limited the contagion.

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The Globe and Mail first reported in July that the Global Public Health Intelligence Network was shut down in May 2019 and its officials reassigned to other government positions.

On Tuesday, the newspaper reported that a review is now being launched into how that happened, which comes after it reported the system was brought back to life last month.

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Global News has confirmed that Hajdu is ordering a “full and expeditious independent review.”

“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. That’s why we have ordered a full and expeditious independent review of GPHIN,” said Hajdu’s office in a statement.

“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.”

The review will be done by experts outside of the Public Health Agency of Canada, the statement said.

Hajdu’s office called the work being done by the system “critical.”

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The question of to what extent the system may have been impacted emerged during a press conference with Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, on Tuesday.

Tam was asked several times about the review and about whether she believed that the reported decisions to scale back on its staff and functioning could have impacted the ability of Canadian officials to be alert to the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Tam said her understanding is while the scope of the system’s alerts may have been scaled back, the system itself was never completely shut down.

But she added that she has not heard directly from public health officials about any concerns with the system, and did not want to comment further given the review set to get underway.

“Any difficulties of public service or staff in expressing their views has to be taken really seriously,” she said. “I certainly welcome any kind of review that improves the system.”

Ron St. John, former director general of the Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Public Health Agency of Canada, was part of the team that helped set up the early warning system.

He says an important part of the conversation as more questions emerge about what exactly happened is understanding how the system itself works.

St. John said the system is designed to collect information from around the world and collate that into a list of verified health events that are then sent to public health officials subscribed to the system.

“But from time to time, GPHIN analysts will consider something so important that the information has to be pushed to the subscribers and sent out as an emergency alert,” he explained.

“Those alerts … as I understand it, were stopped in May of 2019. GPHIN continued to function, but the subscriber has to go in and look. You didn’t get an early warning pushed to you.”

St. John said he still is a subscriber to that system and went in to check the data on Dec. 31, 2019, as the initial reports were emerging about a cluster of illnesses around Wuhan, China.

He said while he could see all of the information and reports documented in the system, he did not receive any emergency alert about the information.

“I haven’t had an emergency alert from GPHIN in a long time,” he said.

Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer, also addressed questions posed in French and said that it’s important to note that the system in question was not the only method in place to alert officials to early reports of a developing situation.

“The global public health community is very connected … everyone was picking up signals,” Njoo said about the early days of the pandemic and initial concerns being documented of a pneumonia-like illness.

“It’s not just any single system or information source alone that we rely on — it really is an integrated system around the world.”

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