Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tapped the president of the National Research Council to lead the Public Health Agency of Canada after the abrupt resignation of PHAC’s current president last week.
Iain Stewart, a long-serving bureaucrat, will assume the role of president of PHAC effective September 28 — giving the agency tasked with coordinating the country’s pandemic response a new leader just as caseloads are on the rise in Ontario and Quebec.
Stewart was just two years into his five-year term as the head of the National Research Council, the government’s primary scientific research organization.
The outgoing PHAC leader, Tina Namiesniowski, has been named a “senior official” in the Privy Council Office, the branch of government that serves the prime minister and cabinet.
In a letter to staff last week announcing her departure, Namiesniowski said she needs to “take a break” and “step aside so someone else can step up” to lead the agency as caseloads spike and testing times creep up in some parts of the country.
“You really need someone who will have the energy and the stamina to take the agency and our response to the next level,” she said in internal correspondence announcing her departure, which was later released by PHAC.
Before joining the research council, the Dalhousie University-educated Stewart was an assistant deputy minister at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), where he worked on national science and research policy.
PHAC was created after the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, a health emergency that left 44 Canadians dead after 438 cases were reported. The agency was designed to better coordinate the country’s public health response to disease outbreaks.
Outside of Asia, Canada was the country hardest hit by SARS.
Before PHAC was established, Canada had a haphazard approach to disease surveillance, health emergency preparedness and epidemic response. Various federal government departments and provincial and territorial agencies were tasked with running different aspects of the country’s response to a major health emergency.
The outcome of this bureaucratic patchwork was, according to an independent review, Canada’s failure to adequately detect emerging infectious disease threats like SARS, and to communicate those threats to the provinces and territories. The review found poor data-sharing among jurisdictions and difficulties with timely access to laboratory testing and results.
“The SARS story as it unfolded in Canada had both tragic and heroic elements. The challenge now is to ensure not only that we are better prepared for the next epidemic, but that public health in Canada is broadly renewed so as to protect and promote the health of all our present and future citizens,” the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health concluded in its Oct. 2003 report.
The committee recommended the creation of an arms-length federal-run public health agency like the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) to unify the country’s efforts to fight new and emerging diseases.
It said such a body “would only go partway to remedying the deficiencies evident during the SARS outbreak” — it also urged more money be spent to shore up the country’s shaky public health infrastructure.
But PHAC has come in for criticism in recent months as Canada’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been questioned by some critics. The pandemic has killed roughly 9,200 people in this country.
The federal government’s initial reluctance to close the border as the virus spread in Asia, its depleted national emergency stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the early months of this pandemic, confusing guidance on the wearing of masks and other perceived failures have been cited by opposition critics in Parliament and others as examples of Canada’s uneven response to COVID-19.
On Namiesniowski’s watch, some scientists working for the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) complained that their early warnings about the threat of COVID-19 were ignored or inadequately addressed by senior staff at PHAC.
The network, a federal government-run monitoring and analysis unit, alerts senior officials to health risks around the globe by compiling media reports and other intelligence about outbreaks.
CBC News reported in April on concerns about the network’s alerts not being as widely disseminated as they had been during past health crises.