Health Minister Patty Hajdu listens at a COVID-19 press conference in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. An interim examination of why the federal government’s pandemic early warning system failed to send up a formal alert on COVID-19 has been released. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai

Health Minister Patty Hajdu listens at a COVID-19 press conference in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. An interim examination of why the federal government’s pandemic early warning system failed to send up a formal alert on COVID-19 has been released. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai

Canada’s pandemic ‘alert’ system didn’t operate as intended for COVID-19: report

The Global Public Health Intelligence Network didn’t operate as intended at the onset of the pandemic

An interim review of why Ottawa’s early pandemic warning system failed to issue a formal alert on COVID-19 has described a lack of detailed knowledge of the system by senior managers.

The audit dated Feb. 26, and released on Saturday, was ordered by federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu after reports the Global Public Health Intelligence Network didn’t operate as intended at the onset of the pandemic.

The interim report concluded the monitoring system did identify the outbreak of the pneumonia that would become COVID-19 on the night of Dec. 30, 2019, and included this information from Wuhan, China, in a special report to Canadian public health officials the next day.

But the report notes that without sending up a formal alert, international partners that rely on Canada’s information were left to rely on other sources.

“That (the system) identified early open‑source signals of what would become COVID‑19 and promptly alerted senior management does not mean that the system is operating as smoothly or as clearly as it could and should,” the report concluded.

“As international subscribers only receive alerts, some jurisdictions did not receive an early signal directly.”

The review panel includes Mylaine Breton and Paul Gully, who are both experts in public health and health policy, and Margaret Bloodworth, who has a background in national security.

The panel’s report also found that prior to the pandemic, the alert system lacked standard operating procedures. Senior managers also didn’t fully understand the rationale and the intended audience for alerts, it added.

The system is set up to gather thousands of internet-based media reports from around the globe, which are narrowed down to items that are deemed credible enough for public health officials to explore further and compiled into a daily report.

But more serious items about potential pandemics and other risks were to result in “alerts,” where subscribers are told “there is a signal they may wish to take notice of or follow up on,” the report said.

The review found there were no written procedures governing the issuance of these alerts prior to fall 2020.

“The panel has also heard from some senior management directly overseeing (the system) who could not describe the purpose or audience for alerts, and may not have had a complete understanding of their intent,” the report read.

The system was set up in the 1990s to scan the internet for open source news and early signals of health threats. Over time, it received upgrades to allow it to use human analysis to track the threats and — according to the review — provided the World Health Organization with about 20 per cent of its early-stage intelligence on epidemics.

There’s been a wide variation of the frequency of these alerts over the past 10 years, with 887 sent out in 2009 — largely in relation to the H1N1 pandemic — followed by 198 in 2013, corresponding with the H7N9 outbreak. Only one, in contrast, was issued in May 2019.

The panelists say it’s clear that “some form of direction was given to pause the alert process,” and that the level of approval for alerts was elevated and then downgraded at least once.

However, the authors said so far they haven’t seen any written documentation on the timeline of those changes, who requested them and why they might have occurred.

The panel will continue its review in the coming months by looking deeper into the context of how the system operates. That includes a high degree of staff turnover and a decline in the number of internal experts with public health credentials.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and vacation bookings are being increased in B.C. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. announces signage along Alberta border to discourage non-essential travel

B.C. extends COVID-19 indoor dining, group fitness ban until May 25

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Alberta begins rolling out AstraZeneca COVID vaccine for those aged 40 or older

There are more than 70 pharmacies offering AstraZeneca, including 26 offering walk-in appointments

A child writes in their school notebook during a home schooling session in Cremona, Alta., Monday, March 23, 2020, amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of students in Calgary will shift to online learning as of today in a bid to curb rising COVID-19 infection rates in the city. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Online classes begin for some Alberta students amid rising COVID-19 cases

Alberta currently has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the country

Volunteers participate in a work-bee at J.J. Collett Natural Area on March 27. (Photo Submitted)
J.J. Collett natural area proceeding with projects

The nature area appeared on a list of parks and nature areas that were “underutilized” by UCP

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

sign
Alberta Biobord Corp. recently hosted a virtual open house from Stettler

The company plans to develop a fuel pellet and medium density fibre board (MDF) plant near the community

The Rogers logo is photographed in Toronto on Monday, September 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Rogers investigating after wireless customers complain of widespread outage

According to Down Detector, problems are being reported in most major Canadian cities

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Nothing stopping provinces from offering AstraZeneca vaccine to all adults: Hajdu

Health Canada has licensed the AstraZeneca shot for use in people over the age of 18

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

A vial of some of the first 500,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Canada’s 2nd blood clot confirmed in Alberta after AstraZeneca vaccine

The male patient, who is in his 60s, is said to be recovering

Most Read