Early detection is as much an art as it is a science.The disease is hiding, but the signals are detectable.Acting quickly can have a big impact on the outcome. With COVID-19, the signals began small, but grew louder.“We all had enough warning,” she said. “We saw what happened in China, in Italy,” Dr. St. John agrees. “The signal was there,” he said.However, few people outside GPHIN knew Canada’s early warning alert system had effectively stopped working, just when it was needed most.When Ms. Thornton, the vice-president in charge of the alerts, appeared before a House of Commons committee in May to face questions about Canada’s handling of the pandemic, she was asked how the government had tracked the spread of the virus.Ms. Thornton referenced GPHIN and the work it did. Though she made no mention that GPHIN had not issued a single alert in the previous 12 months. Nor did she mention that analysts had been assigned to other work, or that GPHIN had not sounded any further alarms on COVID-19 developments after the outbreak became known – even though the department’s own guidelines required as much.As far as the committee knew, Canada’s surveillance system had been operating as it always had.It’s not easy to know the consequences of such decisions, but Mr. Garner, the former senior science adviser at Public Health, says he believes Canada’s early response to the outbreak – which has been criticized for being slow and disorganized – was a product of the many changes he saw made to the department.Those changes helped move Public Health’s focus away from science, he said, which slowed down its ability to react effectively – and with maximum urgency.“All of these things have tragically come home to roost,” Mr. Garner said.“Not to be overdramatic, but Canadians have died because of this.”
CBC News has obtained a series of internal public health agency documents and slide-presentation decks — including one given by a senior epidemiologist from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) last November on the eve of a pandemic that has since killed tens of thousands and crippled the world economy.The documents bring into sharper focus the kind of information key decision-makers had at their fingertips as the outbreak started in China and raise questions about how seriously global pandemic preparedness was being taken within the federal government.The records show GPHIN was in the middle of a long-overdue technology upgrade as the virus was spreading.Despite almost four years of work with the National Research Council of Canada, the early warning system was — as of last fall — still in need of "improvement in the geographical and time tagging algorithm," according to a Nov 12, 2019 presentation to a WHO conference in Seoul, South Korea by senior epidemiologist Florence Tanguay.That algorithm is crucial to the system's ability to sort through as many as 7,000 online articles per day to spot disease outbreaks around the globe.The network also was awaiting an "expansion to new data sources," such as social media feeds.From its inception in the late 1990s, GPHIN had relied on news wire services and later local media articles posted online.