The revelations in journalist Bob Woodward’s new book about what U.S. President Donald Trump knew about the threat posed by COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic have prompted new questions about the Canadian government’s response to the virus, given how much intelligence is shared between the two countries.
Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the U.S. knew that the virus was essentially airborne — “The air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” he said — and that COVID-19 was five times more deadly than even the most “strenuous” cases of the flu.
Trump has been widely criticized for saying such things in private while downplaying the risk in public and failing to adequately warn the American people about a virus that would, as of Friday, claim the lives of 192,616 U.S. citizens.
Trump has defended his public statements about the virus, saying he didn’t want to create “panic” and “cause serious problems for the country.”
Watch: Trump tries to downplay his pandemic comments
But Canadian officials also were reluctant to pronounce on the threat posed by the virus in the early days of the pandemic. Health Minister Patty Hajdu even suggested at one point that the news media was stoking fears about the novel coronavirus.
Hajdu and senior public health officials were saying publicly that the risk of transmission was low in Canada right up until early March. When the risk level suddenly jumped to “high” on March 15, the government scrambled to impose an economic lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.
A week after Trump’s call with Woodward, Hajdu told the Thunder Bay Newswatch on Feb. 14 that Canada had seen “a stabilization of cases.”
“I’ve talked a lot about how we have the outbreak that is obviously related to a physical illness … but there’s also the outbreak of fear and the pandemic of fear is a very common partner to pandemics or outbreaks of other illnesses,” she told the local news outlet.
“We need to remind Canadians that the risk factor for contracting this virus in Canada is a close contact with someone who recently travelled to the region,” she added, referring to Asia.
Two months later, there’d be tens of thousands of new cases — many of them generated through community spread by returning travellers from Europe and the U.S.
Wesley Wark, a professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the country’s foremost experts on Canada’s intelligence agencies, said the U.S. likely had better reconnaissance on the virus than the Canadian government did in the early days.
But Wark said he believes it’s “very likely” that some information about the real threat posed by this virus flowed from the U.S. to Canada, especially at the “liaison” level between U.S. officials and Canadians embedded at the embassy in Washington.
He said that, like many U.S. officials, the federal government here downplayed some hard truths of the pandemic, such as the risk of asymptomatic transmission.
“It seems clear to me that Canadian officials — even though they didn’t have, I don’t think, access to the more alarming intelligence the U.S. had — were clearly concerned in ways similar to the Trump administration about creating panic, sowing confusion in the Canadian public, and they were certainly concerned about the resource implication of taking earlier measures against COVID-19,” he told CBC News, citing the government’s initial reluctance to close borders and impose quarantines on returning travellers.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, warned against border closures for weeks. “They are inappropriate and could actually cause more harm than good in terms of our global effort to contain,” she said on Feb. 3, before travel was brought to standstill seemingly overnight in mid-March.
Hajdu repeated those lines on Feb. 17, saying border closures were “not effective at all” at controlling the spread of disease.
Tam said at the end of January that she expected Canada would be spared the brunt of the virus.
“Canada’s risk is much, much lower than that of many countries. It’s going to be rare, but we are expecting cases,” she told the Commons health committee.
Asked on Jan. 28 if the federal government was preparing to help provinces and territories deal with a possible surge in cases and strained hospital capacity, Hajdu said that while Canada was ready to assist, she didn’t see an imminent risk.
“I think it’s very premature to say that there will be additional resources needed at the hospital level,” Hajdu told CBC’s Power & Politics. “Every indication is that we will not at this point in time.”
She said Canada was “phenomenally well-coordinated” and “well-prepared” for a possible onslaught of COVID-19.
As CBC reported last month, the public servants who manage the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS) warned in early February that there was a shortage of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to weather a pandemic. It still took weeks for the federal government to sign contracts for goods like N95 respirators, the masks used by health-care professionals to protect themselves from COVID-19.
Hajdu said in an interview Thursday that she took the virus “deadly seriously” at the outset and that she “absolutely” knew the virus had the potential to “kill many more people than the flu.”
“We were doing things very early. All along the way, we were taking appropriate measures based on the risk it was presenting to Canada,” she said, adding there was “extensive screening at the airports.” But the government didn’t begin collecting personal contact information from travellers inbound from Hubei province in China — site of the initial outbreak — until Feb. 19.
Wark said Hajdu’s message wasn’t clearly communicated in those early days — and there was a clear push by the government to minimize threats.
“What was the evidence that the Canadian public was prone to panic about the government being bold about the truth? Where’s the evidence?” Wark said.
“That wasn’t the public’s response to SARS in 2003. It wasn’t the response to other outbreaks, like H1N1. It’s a politician’s mindset that is frequently rolled out and it has no basis in evidence or in history and it was certainly misapplied to COVID-19.”
While senior U.S. officials were sounding the alarm in late January to Trump about the imminent risk the pandemic posed to the American people and the world, Canadian public health officials continued to rely on what we now know was often questionable advice from the World Health Organization.
In a Jan. 28 intelligence briefing, U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien gave Trump a “jarring” warning about the virus, according to Woodward’s reporting.
A ‘national security threat’ unlike any other
He told the president that COVID-19 would be the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency. He urged swift border closures to stop Chinese nationals from transmitting the virus on U.S. soil, according to Woodward’s book.
“This is going to be the toughest thing you face,” O’Brien told Trump.
Three days later, during a January 31 interview on Power & Politics, Hajdu said Canada would take its cues from Tam — who also had a senior role at the WHO, where officials were said to have a strong working relationship with China, then the global hotspot.
“You’ve heard Dr. Tam speak about China’s efforts to contain the virus. They indeed have been extraordinary,” Hajdu said.
“That is part of what gives the World Health Organization confidence that the risk of further exposure and spread globally is low … I along with Dr. Tam am very confident that China is working very closely with its partner countries to contain the spread.”
The Associated Press would later reveal that the Chinese regime suppressed evidence of the virus’s transmissibility for six days in early January before going to the WHO to brief the agency on the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak.
O’Brien’s intelligence warnings, along with recommendations from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, would prompt Trump to declare a national health emergency on Jan. 31.
Canada — deferring again to the WHO instead of tracking the path of its closest ally — would not follow suit.
On Jan. 31, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, publicly warned the American people that new, troubling research about COVID-19 had emerged.
Fauci said there was no longer any doubt that people displaying no symptoms of COVID-19 could still pass the virus along to someone else.
Canada slow to react to asymptomatic transmission
“In the beginning we were not sure if there was asymptomatic infection, which would make it a much broader outbreak than what we’re seeing. Now we know for sure that there is,” he said.
“It was not clear whether … [a] person could transmit it to someone while they were asymptomatic. Now we know, from a recent report from Germany, that that is absolutely the case.”
Canada ignored Fauci’s about-face. Later on Jan. 31, Hajdu downplayed the German report on asymptomatic transmission Fauci cited — which would later prove to be accurate — saying it was out of step with what the WHO had told Canada.
“The science is still quite weak,” she said in another interview with Power & Politics. “There are some reports but the World Health Organization does not believe, at this point, that the virus is contagious when people are asymptomatic.
“I’m extremely comfortable with the leadership of Dr. Tam and her level of expertise. Our position is completely in line with the WHO’s position. There is no sufficient evidence to say the virus can be spread when people are not exhibiting symptoms.”
Other senior public health officials in Canada also deferred to Tam and the WHO, while dismissing recent U.S. conclusions and the German report.
“The WHO and Dr. Tam … their assessment of the situation is the information supporting that is still very weak,” said Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, on Jan. 31.
“The Public Health Agency of Canada and the WHO are saying that, at this point, we don’t have hard evidence of infectious infectivity of an asymptomatic person,” added Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health responsible for communicable and infectious diseases.
A gap in intelligence-gathering
It wasn’t until April 7 — 66 days after Fauci’s initial alert — that Tam would publicly concede that “the virus causing COVID-19 can be spread from an infected person in the period just before their symptoms appear.”
“Evidence suggests that this is happening more often than previously thought … some infected people who never develop symptoms are also able to transmit the virus,” Tam said in a tweet.
Wark said the early failures of public health officials can be traced to a gap in Canada’s intelligence apparatus. The country just doesn’t collect enough health-related intelligence, he said. “We didn’t have a lot of independent sources of our own,” he said — which explains the reliance on the WHO.
Wark said much of Canada’s intelligence-gathering on disease is carried out by the Public Health Agency of Canada. But recent reporting has suggested that the agency’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) was sidelined in the early days of the pandemic.
The GPHIN raised the alarm about a strange, pneumonia-like virus circulating in China at the end of December.
But GPHIN scientists have since come forward to say they felt muzzled and ignored by Health Canada officials when they tried to warn them about the pandemic threat. Hajdu conceded in an interview with CTV on Thursday that, when she became minister of health in November 2019, she had never heard of the GPHIN.
“I think it’s clearer and clearer that the U.S. had its own sources that painted a much darker picture of COVID than anything Canada had from its own sources,” Wark said.
“We weren’t connected. The Canadian security intelligence system doesn’t do global health. We don’t have a system to make good use of that U.S. intelligence.”
In 2018, the Trump administration released its National Biodefense Strategy. The first goal of the strategy is “surveillance and detection activities to detect and identify biological threats and anticipate biological incidents.”
“There’s no comparable Canadian intelligence community mandate,” Wark said.
Wark said that by late January, it was clear that there was considerable human-to-human transmission of the virus, based on reporting out of China and Thailand — but Canadian officials continued to question the science of asymptomatic transmission for weeks.
Turning a ‘blind eye’
“There was absolutely no reason to assume a rosier picture. At the end of the day, there was no reason not to assume that human-to-human transmission was going to occur. The evidence was mounting by the last week of January that this was the reality,” he said.
“Why they turned a blind eye to that … why the health authorities continued to think that basically COVID was going to be contained in China, that just represents a profound failure of intelligence or assessment and of imagination.”
Speaking to reporters in northern Ontario Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked when it became clear to his government that COVID-19 posed a major threat to Canada.
Watch: Trudeau on Canada’s early indications of COVID-19’s threat
Trudeau said Tam convened a meeting with public health experts on Jan. 2 to address “concerns we had and talk about our preparation.”
He said his government was well-briefed throughout and responded to challenges as they arose.
“Every step of the way, we were informed by our experts as to how to keep Canadians safe, what needed to be done, what measures would be helpful in continuing to support Canadians as we were aware of this potential,” he said.
“But, as people know, we were very much learning on the way as we responded.”