Ottawa revives its global disease monitoring agency
August 19, 2020
OTTAWA – The federal government has quietly re-launched its international pandemic surveillance and alert system, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN). The agency is again issuing alerts about serious disease outbreaks for the first time since May 2019, when it was effectively shut down.
The move to re-activate GPHIN comes on the heels of an in-depth report by the Globe and Mail, which had written about the shuttering of the organization. According to the newspaper report, the agency’s work had been halted due to the government’s wishes to focus its attention on domestic matters.
The GPHIN system had been praised around the world for its ability to detect potentially dangerous outbreaks at their earliest stages. Ironically, the government closed GPHIN’s doors just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, removing an early warning system from the stage.
The highly specialized unit, comprised of doctors and epidemiologists who scour global news feeds, online reports of symptoms, official health data and many other sources of intelligence to detect and track outbreak threats as they develop, had been called the cornerstone of Canada’s pandemic response capability. Faced with governments often reluctant to disclose outbreaks, the World Health Organization also relied on GPHIN for 20 percent of its “epidemiological intelligence,” according to federal documents.
But in late 2018, the analysts were told to focus on projects considered more valuable to the government’s priorities. With no global pandemic threats in recent memory, the government shifted GPHIN toward domestic assignments, such as tracking the health effects of vaping in Canada.
This dramatically curtailed the unit’s international surveillance work, raising questions about whether the system failed when it was needed most. On May 24 last year, GPHIN issued its last alert – about a strange outbreak in Uganda that killed two people – and fell silent. With that, much of its surveillance work – which is the key benefit of the operation – also shut down. As the COVID-19 outbreak began, the government instead relied mostly on official disclosures from the Chinese government, and data from the WHO to determine the size of the threat.
However, earlier this month, GPHIN issued its first outbreak alert in 440 days, signaling that some of its epidemiological intelligence capacities are now being restored by the government.
The alert warns of a potentially deadly tick-borne illness in China that is showing signs of human-to-human transmission.
It is a system designed to inject urgency into the public-health system, since the alert prompts continuing independent surveillance of the threat by Canada and 85 other countries that rely on GPHIN. “The primary value of GPHIN alerts is not to ensure that public health professionals simply know that certain events have occurred… but to know which events merit more scrutiny,” Natalie Mohamed, a spokeswoman for PHAC, said in a statement.
Before it went silent last year, GPHIN sent out more than 1,500 such warnings around the world over the past decade, which helped spur public-health officials and the WHO into action when necessary.
One Public Health employee, who is not being named because they fear reprisal for speaking out, said staff were relieved when the surveillance and alert system was suddenly restarted.
“I almost cried when the new alert went out. That’s how I felt,” the GPHIN employee told the Globe and Mail. “None of us treat it just like a job. We’re all so emotionally tied into the work. You do this because you figure somebody’s going to pick it up and it will change behaviour [among decision-makers]. That’s what these alerts do, they’re supposed to change a behaviour so that people are aware of it and can fix a health problem before it grows too much.”
The move to restart the system occurred on the same day The Globe reported that the Auditor-General intends to investigate the government’s handling of GPHIN, which was used in past outbreaks such as H1N1.