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.

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

Just Posted

The physically distanced, masked, outdoor protest was organized by Fridays For Future West-Kootenay and XR Nelson in solidarity with the Fairy Creek Blockades on Vancouver Island. Photo: Submitted
Demonstrators rally outside Castlegar MLA’s office in support of Fairy Creek Watershed blockaders

The event was held at Minister of Forests Katrine Conroy’s office

letter
LETTER: Federal government missing the mark during pandemic

Reader Fred Hughes says political leaders and parties need to be held responsible

FILE — In this March 31, 2021 file photo, a nurse fills a syringe with a dose of the Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaxmobile, at the Uniondale Hempstead Senior Center, in Uniondale, N.Y. The U.S. is recommending a “pause” in administration of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots. In a joint statement Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said it was investigating clots in six women in the days after vaccination, in combination with reduced platelet counts. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
72 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

This brings the total number of cases in the region to 9,666 since the pandemic began

Photo collage of loved ones lost to substance use and overdose. (Photo courtesy Moms Stop The Harm)
B.C. overdose deaths still rising five years after public health emergency declared

Moms Stop the Harm calls on B.C. to provide safe supply in response to deadly illicit drug use

Police are advising of a scam actively happening in the Kootenay Boundary, one that involves a person trying to sell the victim gold for cash. Problem is, the gold is fake. Photo: Matt Flores on Unsplash
Fake gold scam re-surfaces in the Kootenay Boundary

Victims are approached in high-traffic areas by someone claiming to need emergency cash

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. sees 873 more COVID-19 cases Tuesday, decline continues

Hospitalizations up to 377, two more deaths for 1,515 total

FILE – People hold signs during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to request federal exemption for simple drug possession

Announcement comes on 5-year anniversary of B.C.’s first public health emergency

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, FIle)
Rare blood clots ‘may be linked’ to AstraZeneca vaccines: Health Canada

One case of the adverse effect has been reported in Canada

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has restricted indoor dining at all restaurants in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 indoor dining, drinking ban extending into May

Restaurant association says patio rules to be clarified

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Two men walk past a sign on Main Street in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calls for government transparency in COVID data continue as B.C.’s 3rd wave wears on

Social media, where both information and misinformation can spread like wildfire, has not helped

Two men were seen removing red dresses alongside the Island Highway in Oyster Bay. (Submitted photo)
Observers ‘gutted’ as pair filmed removing red dresses hung along B.C. highway

Activists hung the dresses to raise awareness for Indigenous Murdered/Missing Women & Girls

A grey whale off the coast of Vancouver Island is being monitored by Canadian and U.S. researchers, as it has developed lesions after being tagged last year. To try and prevent systemic infection from developing, the team administered antibiotics to the whale on March 31 and April 1. (Photo from the NOAA Fisheries website)
Grey whale off Vancouver Island develops lesions after being tagged, researchers monitor its condition

Canadian and U.S. whale experts administered antibiotics to the animal on March 31, April 1

Most Read