Three years and three months after COVID-19 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) in January 2020, the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has announced that COVID-19 is no longer considered a PHEIC. The decision was grounded on expert advice and trends showing decreases in COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, as well as high levels of population immunity to SARS-CoV-2.
While this is the long-awaited news the world-over had hoped for, COVID-19 remains an ongoing health issue that requires long-term management. At home, the pandemic era has had a notable impact on the action Canada is taking to prioritize the health and safety of its citizens through enhanced pandemic preparedness. The actions include: introducing legislative changes, investing in infrastructure development, and playing a significant role in global pandemic prevention.
1. Legislative and Regulatory Changes
Health Canada introduced Regulations Amending the Medical Devices Regulations (Interim Order No. 3) On February 22nd, 2023, with the aim off enhancing access to COVID-19 medical devices. This Order enables the continued importation and sale of authorized devices, ensuring a steady supply to effectively address ongoing or future pandemic challenges.
Currently, Parliament is the Pandemic Prevention and Preparedness Act (Bill C-293) is undergoing consideration in committee. This act aims to prevent future pandemics by addressing factory farming and the commercial wildlife trade as 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases primarily originate from animals, especially wildlife. The bill identifies suspected pandemic drivers such as live animal markets, the wildlife trade, intensive farming, and habitat loss. It includes the creation of an advisory committee, emphasizes a ‘One Health’ approach by recognizing the interconnectedness of animal, human, and environmental health, and requires measures to mitigate risks and promote transparency and accountability.
2. Innovations for Pandemic Preparedness
Canada has embraced innovative strategies to enhance pandemic preparedness. Wastewater monitoring systems have been expanded to detect and track pathogen changes, enabling timely public health interventions. The country has also increased whole genome sequencing testing capacity, leveraging scientific advancements for improved accessibility and timeliness of genomic data for better pandemic response. Canada also monitors adverse events following immunization and combats misinformation by exploring new tools like artificial intelligence and social media analysis. Additionally, behavioral science findings are being applied to boost vaccine confidence, combat misinformation, and test innovative interventions.
3. New Research Infrastructure Projects
In 2021, the Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy, developed in collaboration with key stakeholders and external advisors, was unveiled. The strategy aims to build strategic partnerships, promote talent development, and enhance domestic capacity for next-generation vaccines and therapeutics development to position Canada ahead of future health threats. To fortify the biomanufacturing and life sciences ecosystem, the Canadian government is committing over $2.2 billion over a span of seven years. Five multidisciplinary research hubs have already been selected through the Canada Biomedical Research Fund and Biosciences Research Infrastructure Fund competition, advancing to Stage 2 in March 2023.
4. Procurement Initiatives
Canada aims to reduce supply chain interruptions by investing in domestic production capabilities. An investment of up to $29 million was made to establish a new factory in Greater Montréal, ensuring end-to-end supply chain resilience for personal protective equipment (PPE). By reducing dependence on foreign suppliers, Canada strengthens its capacity to provide a stable and uninterrupted supply of critical PPE items. The country's ventilator stockpile has also significantly increased, with over 27,000 ventilators procured and produced domestically. Collaboration with domestic manufacturers has enhanced self-sufficiency and preparedness for future public health emergencies.
5. Canada and its role in future global pandemic prevention
Canada has demonstrated strong leadership in international pandemic preparedness, leveraging its public health expertise and commitment to global health diplomacy. The country has actively collaborated with international partners, provinces, and stakeholders throughout the pandemic. Canada is also playing a pivotal role in developing a new international instrument, known as a pandemic instrument, in collaboration with other countries and the WHO. The pandemic instrument aims to strengthen global pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response efforts through enhanced cooperation, collective action, and accountability.
Canada has made incredible strides over the last three years to monitor and identify weaknesses within our pandemic preparedness and response systems and proactively seek solutions that are now considered world-leading. Canada is actively contributing to global efforts to prevent and respond to pandemics, emphasizing the importance of collective action and the need for continuous improvement in global health security.
In 2003, The last time that Canada had been involved in the major SARS pandemic, that took 44 Canadian lives, it led to multiple inquiries and precautionary principles and pandemic planning exercises whose learnings were largely ignored when the time came during COVID-19. Can we expect Canada’s response to Disease X to be better?
Looking to the future, our current efforts can only be measured against our response to the next crisis. For example, we need to ask: how will the Government of Canada balance its response to the ongoing COVID-19 health challenges alongside potential future pandemics such monkeypox, declared a PHEIC on July 23, 2022? Will it be able to maintain essential public health services and normal healthcare operations?
How we assess Canada's response to COVID-19 can only truly be known by our level of preparedness for the next pandemic; by our ability to stay vigilant with continuous monitoring of developments across a myriad of entities, and how we apply the valuable lessons we have just learned.