Canada’s chief science advisor plans to tap the new COVID-19 Expert Panel for guidance as initial work begins to develop Canada’s first long-term research and pandemic strategy.
“The topic of a long-term strategy for research, development and preparedness for infectious diseases is something that I will be raising at my COVID-19 Expert Panel to get multidisciplinary input, as I expect this topic will be prominent in the post-pandemic planning,” Dr. (PhD) Mona Nemer said in an email interview with Research Money.
As first reported by Research Money, Ottawa has provided nearly $1 million to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to take the scientific lead on developing the long-term strategy, including initial planning for a new Centre for Pandemic Preparedness and Health Emergencies Research.
Public health experts and academic researchers said in several interviews with R$ that there have been only “incremental” improvements since the SARS outbreak 17 years ago in the ability to collect, analyze and share public health data across Canada’s health sector, and that significant improvements are still needed.
Nemer assembled a 15-member COVID-19 Expert Panel to advise her on the latest scientific developments relevant to the disease.
The COVID-19 Expert Panel identified the data issue as a key priority, Nemer said. “This emphasis on ensuring strong data collection and sharing led to the creation of the Expert Group on Modelling Approaches, which I co-chair with the Deputy Minister of Health (Dr. [PhD] Stephen Lucas).” The 10-member group’s objective is to review modelling approaches to predict and manage disease spread, and identify hot spots in provinces and territories, as well as recovery strategies, data accessibility and data gaps.
On May 20, medical and public health experts told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health that lack of data sharing has hampered Canada’s response to COVID-19. Canada has struggled to get real-time epidemiological information about how many people have the disease, who they are and what kinds of people are affected the most, they said.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer and head of the Public Health Agency of Canada, also acknowledged in a briefing earlier that day that inadequate data sharing, particularly in reporting to the national level, has been a problem during the COVID-19 crisis.
National surveillance infrastructure needed
Public health experts told R$ that Canada hasn’t fully delivered on the national infrastructure needed for adequate infectious disease surveillance and outbreak management. This was a recommendation in the post-SARS report by the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health, chaired by Dr. David Naylor.
The problems of collecting and sharing quality health data, and the need for infrastructure to establish a collaborative “federated system” for public health surveillance, were flagged again in a 2016 report, Blueprint for a Federated System for Public Health Surveillance in Canada: Vision and Action Plan, by the Pan Canadian Public Health Care Network.
“The lack of a mechanism to align surveillance standards across Canada is a missing pillar of surveillance infrastructure that holds the potential to delay the early detection of outbreaks and is a barrier to better understanding chronic diseases and injuries, resulting in negative consequences for the health of Canadians,” says the report.
Nemer told R$ that work by the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force will enhance Canada’s capability for surveillance of COVID-19 in different regions. The task force has been set up to find out how many Canadians may have been infected with COVID-19 but were not tested because they had mild or even no symptoms.
Validated serology (blood serum) tests can identify these individuals with past infections. “These serosurveillance data are very valuable because they indicate how many Canadians in different regions have recovered from infection and give us a better sense of the population with potential immunity to the virus,” said Nemer.
This information may guide regions as they begin easing some physical distancing measures, Nemer said. However, she added: “It is important to note that serosurveillance complements and does not replace an active public health surveillance system.”