The federal agency that is responsible for controlling and preventing outbreaks was unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and underestimated the threat posed by the CCP virus, a new report by the auditor general says.
Released on March 25, the report says that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) failed to issue an alert on the threat of COVID-19, the disease the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus causes, during the early months in Canada, leading Auditor General Karen Hogan to conclude the agency “was not as well prepared as it could have been to” respond to the pandemic, among other deficiencies found.
“We found that no alert from the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) was issued to provide early warning of the virus,” the report states.
“According to the agency’s criteria, an alert is to be issued for an unusual event that has the potential for serious impact or spread. However, no alert was issued when news of an unknown pneumonia was first reported, when the virus had spread outside of China, or when domestic cases were first suspected and confirmed.”
The GPHIN was created in 1997 to warn of serious public threats such as disease outbreaks and infectious diseases with the use of alerts. Analysts at the agency monitor media reports worldwide and assess if the threats warrant issuing one.
In 2018, the PHAC, however, restructured GPHIN and removed the analysts’ authority to trigger the alerts. “After this change, the number of alerts decreased significantly,” the report said, as alerts now needed approval from senior management.
In 2019 and 2020, only two alerts were issued—a drastic drop from an average of one to two per month from 2015 to 2018.
The audit found that GPHIN had issued daily reports about the CCP virus, of which the first one was sent on Dec. 31, 2019, with a link to an article describing an outbreak of viral pneumonia of unknown origin in China. Unlike alerts, daily reports were sent only within Canada to federal, provincial, and territorial partners.
Hogan said there is a difference between the reports and alerts, using the example of a smoke detector to illustrate her point.
“I have a smoke detector in my home and I trust that when I’m in my home, that it will go off to give me a warning, to go inspect and see what’s going on and then react as needed,” Hogan said during a press conference on March 25.
“And that’s the intention of alert, was to alert both domestically and internationally something of concern, something that was unusual, something outside of a daily report, and something that we saw issued in the past during H1N1 and SARS.”
The audit also revealed PHAC had relied on a risk assessment tool incapable of assessing disease threats accurately coming from outside the Canadian borders.
“The risk assessment tool was not designed to consider a pandemic which is really looking at the forward-looking spread of a disease, and so as such, for several repeated runs of the tool, the risk of the virus was assessed as low,” Hogan said.
Moreover, the PHAC did not re-assess the COVID-19 risk until March 16, 2020, according to the auditor general.
“We reviewed the meeting minutes of the agency’s 2 key pandemic response committees and found little discussion concerning the ongoing low risk rating for COVID‑19,” Hogan’s report states.
“However, on 12 March 2020, in light of escalating case counts, senior provincial and territorial public health officials raised the need for aggressive public health measures, including mandatory quarantine for international travellers.”
On March 16, the PHAC decided to raise the risk rating to high for the general public.
“The Public Health Agency of Canada should strengthen its process to promote credible and timely risk assessments to guide public health responses to limit the spread of infectious diseases that can cause a pandemic, as set out in its pandemic response plans and guidance,” Hogan recommnended in the report, to which the PHAC responded it would review its processes and update them by December 2022.
Following the release of the report, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair released a joint statement on the same day, confirming the relevant federal agencies will “accept all the recommendations from this audit.”