Alberta Health Services anticipates being able to immunize individuals who choose not to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, sometime in May, using one of the other two vaccine products. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

COVID might have been in Canada earlier than when it was first identified: expert

VANCOUVER — The novel coronavirus might have reached Canada weeks before the first official case was diagnosed in late January of 2020, says an expert who tracks pandemics.

Prof. Sarah Otto of the University of British Columbia said it is possible there were infections of COVID-19 a month or two before the first official case.

A traveller could have returned to Canada and was just getting over the illness or was sick and didn’t go out while they were infectious, she said.

Reconstructing early travel patterns of those carrying COVID-19 around the world might lead to better policies before pandemics take hold, said Otto, who is an expert on the mathematical models of pandemic growth and control in the university’s zoology department.

“I don’t think that we had any cases that then sparked community spread,” she said.

Researchers have developed a phylogenetic or family tree of the COVID-19 strains from around the world to determine when the virus was in the community, she said. They analyzed over 700,000 sequences of its genome from positive cases since it was first found in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

“If you trace this family tree, you can go back to the ancestor and figure out when it first arrived in humans,” she said in a recent interview.

“And that family tree kind of funnels together into one place in time, and that is around the end of 2019.”

Otto’s findings are in keeping with a United States study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in November, which found the virus was in that country as early as December 2019, although community transmission of COVID-19 didn’t begin until February.

The first media reports about the virus in Wuhan were on Dec. 31 when Chinese experts investigated an outbreak of a respiratory illness after 27 people fell ill.

Dr. Ronald St. John, the former head of the federal Centre for Emergency Preparedness, said that was also the day when Canada was first warned of the disease through the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, an early warning system for public health threats worldwide.

Experts say Canada missed an opportunity to better control the spread of COVID-19 by limiting the flow of people across the border sooner and analyzing outbreaks to alert the public.

St. John said the government was trying to strike the right balance between anticipating the problem and finding solutions. Suggesting the closing of airports and the border with the United States might not have been welcomed, he added.

“Politicians would probably think you would have lost your mind.”

Wesley Wark said the federal government didn’t appreciate how quickly the virus could spread from China to the rest of the world.

Initially, the federal government’s view of the virus was “rooted in optimistic hope” that COVID-19 would not be as infectious as it turned out to be, said Wark, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in international affairs and intelligence gathering.

“In retrospect, that idea is baffling,” he said.

“But it was the official wisdom that was contained in the risk assessments that were produced by the Public Health Agency of Canada. And that was a terrible failure of assessment, of judgment.”

Other missteps include allowing travel, confusing messages on physical distancing, hygiene, wearing masks and not acquiring enough personal protective equipment, he said.

“We believed, somehow, that Canada was going to be safe from the kind of global march of this virus,” Wark said.

“We put too much faith in the preparedness of our health system to meet it. We just overlooked so many things. And at the end of the day, if there is any explanation for this it is a combination of hubris that Canada would pull through this and failure of imagination.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement its decisions are guided by science, which is constantly “evolving” as scientists understand the virus.

“Every pandemic is different in terms of characteristics, contagiousness and how it affects people,” the statement said.

The agency is working with all levels of the government, scientific and health care communities to respond to the situation, it added.

Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada released “a lessons learned exercise” in September, outlining the effectiveness of their response to COVID-19 during the first seven months of the pandemic.

“It quickly became evident that the agency did not have the breadth and depth of human resources required to support an emergency response of this never-seen-before magnitude, complexity and duration,” says a report by the office of audit and evaluation.

It details shortcomings in other areas including medical expertise, communications and emergency management.

In interviews, experts laid out steps they would take to improve Canada’s response to emergencies and pandemics.

Julianne Piper, a researcher at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said early warning systems are needed so officials can assess what action is needed. There also needs to be a global public health intelligence system to ensure decision makers are aware of the warnings, she said.

“You can think of it as sort of like a smoke detector of global health, that sort of rings and says, you know, something’s not quite right here, sort of be on alert, or gather more information,” said Piper who studies cross-border measures adopted during COVID-19 and their affect on controlling transmission of the virus.

As part of her work, Piper said it is clear that timing matters when bringing in border measures.

Countries like New Zealand, Vietnam and Australia that had tight border restrictions as part of their early responses to COVID-19 have been more successful at curbing transmission, she said.

Stopping the virus at the gates, combined with additional domestic measures, would have “really helped slow or ideally prevent the spread of the virus,” she said.

“I don’t think that there’s going to be a silver bullet so to speak,” Piper said.

“There’s not a single way to respond to a public health emergency. There are only the tools and the capacities that we know that we have to strengthen.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Instructor Brandt Trimble leads an outdoor spin class at RYDE RD. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Fitness facilities continue to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions

‘It’s really frustrating to be one of the targeted businesses’

Red Deer-Lacombe MP Blaine Calkins (Photo contributed)
Federal budget strangles job growth, says MP Blaine Calkins

‘It is most certainly not a balanced budget’

Kids at Lotsa’Tots West Day Care in Red Deer act out how a caterpillar moves with co-owner and instructor Shireen Sewcharran-Wiebe. Child care providers are hoping Alberta’s provincial government will help fund the national child care program announced this week. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Alberta day care providers hope Alberta will get onboard with national child care program

Some question whether the UCP’s ideology will stand in the way

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, minister of Environment and Parks after being sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. Town council from the largest municipality in Nixon's constituency is concerned over the province's consultation plans for open-pit coal mining in the Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Town of Rocky Mountain House wants better coal consultation

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alta. — Town council from the largest municipality in… Continue reading

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming for more financial literacy learning in junior and senior high schools

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘We hope to help a little more’: Biden says he spoke to Trudeau about more vaccines

WASHINGTON — Canada can look forward to an unexpected shot in the… Continue reading

The Mission Correctional Institution in Mission, B.C. is pictured Tuesday, April 14, 2020. A new federal study found that people released from prison were much more likely than the general population to have trouble finding gainful employment, even over a decade after returning to society. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Ease employment hurdles for former prison inmates, federal study urges

OTTAWA — A new federal study found that people released from prison… Continue reading

Governor of the Bank of Canada Tiff Macklem holds a press conference at the Bank Of Canada in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Bank of Canada keeps rate on hold, sees brighter economic outlook

OTTAWA — The Bank of Canada is keeping its key interest rate… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. Tam says new information on COVID-19 and variants prompted the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to suddenly cancel its planned update on who should get the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
AstraZeneca advice from national panel delayed by new data on COVID-19 and variants

OTTAWA — Canada’s chief public health officer says new information on COVID-19… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a television screen as he listens to United States President Joe Biden deliver a statement during a virtual joint statement following a virtual meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pressured to adopt tougher emissions target for Biden climate summit

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure to step up… Continue reading

Passengers from Air India flight 187 from New Delhi wait for their transportation to quarantine after arriving at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
ICU pressures mount as COVID fells younger people; Ottawa mulls India travel ban

TORONTO — Amid mounting pressures on critical care in hospitals and concerns… Continue reading

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on in Ottawa on Monday April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Three confidence votes to determine fate of minority Liberal government

OTTAWA — A pair of proposed changes to the federal budget put… Continue reading

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland talks with parents during a virtual discussion on child care in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Freeland is calling for patience and “flexibility” in response to questions about the government’s criteria for reopening the economy and border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Freeland urges patience as business looks for answers on reopening border, economy

OTTAWA — Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is urging Canadian companies to… Continue reading

Most Read