Trudeau pushes back as intelligence expert slams COVID-19 early warning failure
OTTAWA -- As an intelligence expert slams the COVID-19 pandemic as a failure of early warning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government was "well co-ordinated" with intelligence allies.
"We had meetings of the Incident Response Group as of late January to talk about the COVID-19 potential threat," Trudeau said, speaking out front of Rideau Cottage on Tuesday.
"We were well co-ordinated with our Five Eyes allies and other intelligence services around the world and being aware of this potential challenge on the horizon, and were dealing with it as of the end of January."
Wesley Wark, a security and intelligence expert, told CTV National News on Monday that the government had been advised to learn from the SARS epidemic in 2004. The lesson there had been to beef up Canada's intelligence apparatus to do reporting on global pandemics.
But, he said, that lesson "never took hold."
"In other words we didn't use our intelligence resources at all to try and collect information on this global pandemic. So we had no chance in Canada to do some possible early warning on the basis of intelligence reports," Wark said.
He explained that as a result of Canada's failure to put this intelligence apparatus in place to scan for signs of a budding pandemic, Canada had just one stream for information, leading us to be caught flat-footed in the early days of the outbreak.
"When we began to get information coming out of China about the outbreak in Wuhan, we were entirely dependent on one stream of open source reporting, basically, and that reporting was coming from the Chinese authorities, controlled by the state, through the World Health Organization (WHO) and back to us in Ottawa," Wark said.
"We didn't have any other way to check and verify that information through intelligence sources. We didn't really get early warning from the Chinese reporting through the WHO, we might have had good early warning if we had had an intelligence system up and running and looking at their information."
Wark said there could have been signs that would have spurred Canada to take "greater action faster," had we seen them. He said spy satellites, which Canada doesn't have in its arsenal but another member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance -- the U.S. -- does, could have shown the Chinese military mobilizing and the early creation of emergency hospitals.
He also said diplomatic reporting would have also helped, had Canada had more resources in China that could have relayed information of the situation on the ground.
"All of those kinds of [intelligence] streams might have added up to a picture that was more alarming earlier on than the picture we were getting from the World Health Organization," Wark said.
However, Canada continued to defend its early efforts in the fight against the pandemic.
"I had already communicated with the [global] chief medical officers by the second of January as soon as we thought, OK, well, this doesn't look good. This looks a bit unusual. That was before we even knew what virus caused this, so those kind of public health intelligence are very much a sort of ally," Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said during a Tuesday press conference.
Tam's deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo, also said he had "daily phone calls" with the head of infectious diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control from the beginning of January.
However, documents made public by the House Health Committee show that on Feb. 10, the Public Health Agency of Canada's risk assessment found the "public health risk in Canada remains low."
Wark said these risk assessments were a symptom of the problem.
"We stuck with that idea and we weren't budged off it early enough, and I think part of the reason for that is we didn't have a system in place were we could have additional information that might have really alarmed us and thrown us off that complacent assumption," Wark said.
CONSERVATIVES QUESTION WHO'S DATA
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer questioned the validity of the information coming from the WHO during a Tuesday press conference, pointing to China's influence on the organization as a key concern.
"We have very serious concerns, many concerns have been raised about the accuracy of the World Health Organization's data, the influence that China has on the World Health Organization," Scheer said.
His concern is borne out of the fact that doubts have been raised about the accuracy of China’s reporting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 1, Bloomberg News reported that the U.S. intelligence community warned the U.S. administration in a classified report that China had "concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country."
China was reporting its numbers to the WHO, prompting concerns about the accuracy of the organization's numbers.
However, during a Tuesday press conference, Canadian government officials defended the organization's record.
"I think it's important to realize that I think that the WHO is not as a standalone organization without multiple sources of research feeding into it," Health Minister Patty Hajdu said.
Tam, who sits on one of the WHO's expert committees, echoed Hajdu's point.
"I think, the WHO does consist of all of its member states, of which Canada is one, but it taps into the global community of scientists, researchers, epidemiologists," Tam said.
Scheer also expressed his dismay at the fact that Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the director-general of the WHO, cancelled a planned appearance before the House Health Committee.
"I'm disappointed that World Health Organization officials have declined the invitation from the House of Commons Health Committee to testify. This government is basing their decisions on the World Health Organization's advice, they're saying that they are partners in this with the World Health Organization," Scheer said, highlighting his concerns about the organization's data.
"We want to be able to have those officials at committee, so they can answer questions that can explain why decisions were made, why advice was given, and on what basis that advice was given."
Hajdu pushed back when a reporter asked about Scheer’s disappointment regarding Aylward’s cancelled committee appearance.
"As I've mentioned, Dr. Tam is an expert advisor to the committee at World Health Organization that has been leading the response on coronavirus, and we've been available to the Health Committee at every request, and in fact spent numerous hours," Hajdu said.