Public Health Agency launches intelligence team to prepare for future pandemics

The Public Health Agency of Canada has quietly reorganized its internal divisions and assembled a security and intelligence section tasked with providing better, faster warnings of future pandemics, CBC News has learned.

The creation of the intelligence division — part of a widespread reconfiguration of teams within the agency — comes in response to pointed criticism of PHAC’s early pandemic response in 2020.

Government sources with knowledge of the file said the pandemic led to an influx of new personnel and resources, making it necessary to revamp PHAC’s organizational structure. CBC News is not identifying the confidential sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

As many as 1,000 staff members from all backgrounds and disciplines have been hired at Health Canada since the pandemic began, said one of the sources.

A series of detailed questions about the initiative was put to PHAC on Monday. Late Wednesday, officials responded by confirming the reorganization; they refused to provide details on how the security and intelligence team will be organized.

Back in the spring, Auditor General Karen Hogan released a blistering report on the Liberal government’s handling of the Global Pandemic Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), a multilingual monitoring system that scours the internet for reports of infectious diseases.

The federal government ordered the once-world class intelligence network to focus its attention more on domestic surveillance than international outbreaks, the auditor reported. The report also took the health agency to task for changes that limited GPHIN’s ability to issue crucial pandemic alerts to clients, including provincial governments and international health agencies.

It’s not clear what role GPHIN will play in this new security and intelligence division.

The health agency also has been criticized for not paying close enough attention to health intelligence warnings coming from other government agencies, including the military’s medical intelligence branch.

‘It’s a breakthrough’

Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and one the country’s leading intelligence experts, said he’s encouraged to see PHAC move to create a more robust intelligence-gathering system.

“It’s a breakthrough,” he said. “It’s a recognition, which has been slow to come from PHAC, that they have to do things differently in the future. There was a lot of defensiveness around the auditor general’s report.”

He said the agency still has to staff the division with talent and build bridges with the rest of the intelligence and security community in Canada and elsewhere.

The decision to establish the new unit comes at a time when governments everywhere are under pressure to improve their health intelligence capabilities. The World Health Organization (WHO) and allies such as the United States, Britain and Germany are planning major pandemic early warning initiatives.

‘We lost precious months’

Standing on stage with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a summit meeting in Brussels last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the world needs more than vaccines to move on from the current crisis.

“We need better surveillance,” she said. “We need to be prepared in the infrastructure.

“It would be good if we worked together and agreed on that to reform the WHO because, in particular, we have to improve the early warning system and we have to improve the investigative powers of the WHO, because we all know we lost precious months at the beginning of the pandemic.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, European Council President Charles Michel, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, center, pose after participating in a media conference at the end of an EU-Canada summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

When asked by CBC News at the recent G7 summit what measures his government would take to improve Canada’s pandemic early warning capabilities, Trudeau gave a vague response that made no reference to PHAC’s initiative.

“There are many things that Canada has been reviewing and working on and we will continue to work to make sure Canadians are protected from any future pandemic,” he said.

The United Kingdom, as host of this year’s G7 summit, made preventing another global catastrophe one of the summit’s key themes. The U.K.’s top science adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has said that an improved early warning system would be a critical component of post-pandemic rebuilding efforts.

WHO, which was a big supporter of Canada’s GPHIN, is pushing for countries to cooperate more closely and is calling for a global pandemic preparedness treaty.

“Above all, at the root of the pandemic is a deficit of solidarity and sharing — of the data, information, resources, technology and tools that every nation needs to keep its people safe,” the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the G7 summit earlier this month.

“WHO believes the best way to close that deficit is with an international agreement — a treaty, convention, call it what you will — to provide the basis for improved preparedness, detection and response, and for improved cooperation to identify the origins of new pathogens.”

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