Canada’s health minister has ordered an independent review of the intelligence network that informs Canada’s response to disease outbreaks, CTV News has confirmed.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the Global Public Health Network (GPHIN) has played an integral part in helping to guide decision-making of top public health officials during the pandemic, but was "concerned" to learn of reports that employees felt constrained in their work.
"We were concerned to learn of reports that GPHIN analysts felt that they were not able to proceed with their important work, and that some scientists didn’t feel fully empowered. That’s why we have ordered a full and expeditious independent review of GPHIN, led by professionals and experts from outside of the Public Health Agency of Canada," the statement to CTVNews.ca read.
The GPHIN was formed in the late 1990s in collaboration with the World Health Organization to "rapidly detect, identify, assess, prevent and mitigate threats to human health." It’s made up of international researchers and analysts and managed by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response.
It consists of two main components: data processing and risk assessment. The former involves a tool that scans and captures about 7,000 articles in nine languages every day. The latter involves a team of professionals that process and assess the data for a daily "Situational Awareness" report released each morning to members, including senior management at PHAC and government departments.
Real-time alerts are also issued, but in the fall of 2018, jurisdiction over the alerts approval process was transferred from GPHIN analysts to senior management, according to a spokesperson within the ministry. After this organizational change, the number of alerts decreased and then eventually stopped.
"This independent review is an important step in restoring GPHIN and ensuring that it can continue its valuable contributions to public health in Canada and around the world," said Hajdu.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam responded to news of the independent review during a press conference on Monday in Ottawa, stating that she welcomes any changes that would enhance efficiency within the network.
"From my perspective it’s very important to have as minimal of a delay and minimal layers of bureaucracy in the system, which is meant to provide early alerting," she said, adding that staff complaints will be taken seriously.
"Staff should feel that they are able to articulate any concerns and difficulties as they should in any organization. They haven’t specifically talked to me about it but I play a very different role to some of the managers in the agency but I know that they would want to be able to hear any concerns as soon as possible."
Tam confirmed that she was informed about the cluster of cases of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan by the GPHIN in late December.
In an interview on CTV’s Power Play on Tuesday, former federal health minister and Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen's University Dr. Jane Philpott said she was pleased to hear a review was happening.
"It’s fantastic news," she said. "I trust that that process will get at the roots of why those decisions were made and what can be done going forward."