A discarded blue surgical mask is shown hanging in a bush in Montreal, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

A discarded blue surgical mask is shown hanging in a bush in Montreal, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

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

UBC researcher says it’s possible there were infections a month or two before the first official case

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.

Coronavirus

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

Just Posted

Salmon Arm Homes for Rent/Sale Etc. is a popular Facebook page used by those with places for rent and people in need of them. (Lachlan Labere-Salmon Arm Observer)
Carpenter building homes in Salmon Arm unable to find place to rent

Property manager says it’s easier to find work in Salmon Arm than a place to live

(Natalia Cuevas-Huaico - Kelowna Capital News)
Morning Start: Foot bones don’t harden until you’re an adult

Your morning start for Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Salmon Arm City Hall is closing between noon and 2 p.m. effective April 12, 2021. (File photo)
Pandemic precautions change hours at Salmon Arm city hall

Public will still be able to access services online during two hours when facility closed

A syringe is loaded with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Interior Health announces 89 cases of COVID-19 in the region

Currently, there are 900 active cases in the region

The Red Pill Rapper performs to the crowd gathered for the Rally For Food Security at Blackburn Park on Saturday, April 10, 2021. (Kristal Burgess Photography)
The Red Pill Rapper performs to the crowd gathered for the Rally For Food Security at Blackburn Park on Saturday, April 10, 2021. (Kristal Burgess Photography)
Suspicion of ‘fake news media’ makes rally uncomfortable for Salmon Arm event photographer

More than 300 people counted at city park for ‘Rally For Food Security’

Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan presides as Speaker of the B.C. legislature, which opened it spring session April 12 with a speech from the throne. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. NDP promises more health care spending, business support in 2021 budget

John Horgan government to ‘carefully return to balanced budgets’

Dr. E. Kwok administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a recipient at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Most Canadians plan to get COVID-19 vaccine, but safety fears drive hesitancy: poll

This comes as confidence in governments is plummeting in provinces being hit hardest by the pandemic

Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox is shown in a 1981. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/CP)
Terry Fox’s legacy of resilience resonates during COVID-19 crisis, says brother

Fred Fox said his brother’s legacy of resilience has taken on renewed resonance as COVID-19 rages on

A five-storey, 60-unit building has been proposed for 8709 Jubilee Rd. E., Summerland. The proposal will be the subject of a public hearing on March 22. (Image by GTA Architecture)
Zoning, OCP amendments adopted for Summerland housing development

Council gives final readings for controversial five-storey, 60-unit housing development

A youth was arrested following a car crash on Wallace Street on Saturday, April 10. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Onlookers laugh and jeer as B.C. teen beaten, then forced to strip and walk home

Police arrest older teen, call video shared on social media ‘disturbing’

A lady wears a sticker given out after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count slows after last week’s peak

3,219 new cases since Friday, 18 additional deaths

North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas did not violate the municipality’s code of conduct by posting a sexist meme on Facebook, council concludes. (File photo)
B.C. municipality to take no action against councillor who posted sexist meme

Tek Manhas’s meme doesn’t violate North Cowichan council’s code of conduct, municipality concludes

The former Summerland Asset Development Initiative building on Prairie Valley Road in Summerland was suggested as the site for a temporary transitional housing facility for the community. However, Summerland council has rejected this proposal. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
Summerland council rejects transitional housing facility

Concerns raised about short timeline and condition of municipally-owned building

Most Read