Call for B.C. inquiry after officials 'ignore the science' of airborne COVID-19 spread

One of the key figures in Canada’s inquiry into the SARS outbreak is calling for an inquiry into B.C.’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, describing the province's rejection of scientific evidence a failure that likely cost lives.

Mario Possamai, a pandemic planning expert, forensic investigator and senior advisor to Ontario’s SARS commission, described British Columbia’s handling of the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome as “the best in the world,” having shown the value of recognising airborne spread of that virus and the value of the precautionary principle – but that those lessons have been lost in the COVID-19 response, he said.

"Month after month after month, week after week, B.C. decided not to follow the science and ignore (airborne transmission) and I think it's lead to preventable deaths and infections,” he said, describing aerosol spread as the province’s Achilles heel.

“The precautionary principle is really a continuum of decision-making, so what that means is that if the weight of evidence changes, you can change course and you can do things differently."

Possamai urged premier John Horgan to immediately strike a public inquiry in order to adapt effective measures right away to help stem the fourth wave and adopt best practices for future waves and viruses. 

CTV News Vancouver has asked the provincial health officer about airborne transmission of COVID-19 on several occasions, but provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has downplayed the importance of aerosol spread of the virus when asked, only occasionally referencing ventilation and focusing on droplet-oriented precautions.

“We need to use all of the layers of protection available: that means washing your hands regularly, staying home when you're unwell, wearing your mask -- particularly when you're around other people who are more vulnerable and in public spaces, keeping your distance from others and getting vaccinated," she said in her opening remarks on Tuesday. "What we are asking people to do is not new, but we know it works."

CLINGING TO OLD IDEAS RATHER THAN NEW SCIENCE

But how well that approach is working is up for debate as B.C.’s fourth wave continues unabated, while Ontario has had only a slight increase in cases. Experts note that Canada’s most populous province never lifted its mask mandate or gathering limits in the summer, while adopting air purifiers and other aerosol-busting strategies in Ontario classrooms. 

In the spring of 2021, B.C.’s reluctance to accept the science of airborne transmission made health officials the target of an international review that called the stubbornness “both a mystery and a scandal.”

Even though the World Health Organization, US Centres for Disease Control and Public Health Agency of Canada had all accepted airborne transmission by the fall or spring, British Columbia’s regional health authorities didn’t even include mention of airborne transmission until CTV News drew attention to the outdated information.

At that time, even more scientific articles had been published and widely accepted by researchers and experts and the scientific community now believes not only is airborne spread of the virus a major source of infection, it may be the dominant method

Despite the premier’s insistence that B.C.’s approach has been successful, with low per capita testing rates compared to the rest of Canada, not only are B.C.’s infection statistics called into question by experts, the Royal Society of Canada has raised serious questions about undercounting COVID-19 deaths; they believe there could be twice as many.

INTERNATIONAL SCRUTINY ON COVID-19 RESPONSES

Possamai’s comments come as British lawmakers are faced with a new report that described the UK’s initial response to the pandemic as stymied by groupthink that failed to incorporate lessons learned from SARS, MERS and EBOLA. 

“We were not as open to approaches being taken elsewhere as we should have been,” wrote the parliamentary committee, noting that the government’s response has been largely reactionary.

Henry has come under fire for failing to adopt “soft touch” proactive measures and opting to react to surging hospitalizations instead.

B.C.’s seniors’ advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, had raised the idea of a larger inquiry last week, noting her probe into care homes only looked at deaths in the early stages of the pandemic, though she believes a longer timeline is necessary.

“We still need to look at the overall impact of health outcomes, the long-term impact on staff and facility operators, and, undoubtedly, there's things we haven't even imagined yet that we need to examine,” Mackenzie said last week. “I expect we will see these issues probed more deeply in the future as we get further through and hopefully on the other side of this pandemic.”

Possamai, who has criticized B.C.’s secrecy and refusal to collect or disclose data in another report, pointed out there’s an urgent need to address the airborne transmission gap in the province’s policies and public health education.

“We need to start getting this right and I think every week that in B.C. portable air purifiers are not put into schools and other facilities is a week lost and a week that endangers children and their families,” he insisted. “We really need to look seriously at this."