Is Ontario’s COVID Science Table About to Be Shut Down? It certainly looks like it

Ontario’s Independent Volunteer Science Table, a valuable source of information and direction throughout the pandemic, is reportedly disbanding.

A sudden shock from the Ontario Department of Public Health, which agreed to take over a table of more than 40 scientists from its former home at the University of Toronto and negotiated terms of reference with then-co-chair Steini Brown. will be in motion. summer.

The Ministry of Health denied that the table would be closed, stating that “work on the (Scientific Advisory Table) will continue,” and was pressed to say, “The SAT is not closed.”

People walk past a vaccine clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ontario.

But the new PHO head, Michael Scherrer, said at a table on Aug. 18 that it would close on Sept. 6, according to a summary circulated among scientific tables and obtained by Starr. The data was lost and the project was left behind. Instead, the PHO has established a highly-selected 15-person advisory group, has no formal scientific director, and has limited independence from the PHO and the Chief Medical Officer for Health, for example, allowing it to unilaterally decide the topic of research. There is no ability to select for Expertise.

Public Health Ontario was directly responsible for the negotiations and did not deny that the table was closed. Negotiations were underway to “establish a mandate that reflects a long-term, sustainable approach,” and “membership will continue to be composed of independent professionals,” it said only.

Conversations with both the PHO and Table sources confirmed the contents of the letter. This letter is a detailed account of the negotiations last month.

Even if breaking up was a bargaining tactic, there doesn’t seem to be a way out here.

On 2 August, the PHO scrapped previously negotiated terms and on 11 August presented new parameters that would severely limit both independence and transparency. They gave the table a Sept. 6 deadline to accept the new restrictive terms, and Sherar cut to the chase a week later.

It is understood that stripping of independence is the end of the negotiations and the end of everything. When informed that the ministry denied the closure, one of her science table members simply replied, “BS.” No further negotiations are currently scheduled.

As the pandemic unfolded, there were certainly ways to use this group’s powerful contributions to serve the public.

The Working Group on the Table on New COVID Medicines, led by Dr. Menaka Pai and Dr. Andrew Morris, has become one of the nation’s leading workforces on challenging, fast-moving and highly technical topics. Conversations with doctors across the province have long confirmed that their compendium of emerging medicines has become an important resource not replicated anywhere else in Canada. With the recurring shortage of medicines in the United States, it has become a valuable resource and has certainly saved lives.

Beyond that, there were working groups on mental health, behavioral sciences related to vaccine uptake, and long-term care, and the groups were developed on the basis of equity. Pediatrics, which the state has often resisted and involves some of the state’s more prominent scientists, brings together different agencies.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Ontario.

It is unclear who is actually driving this decision. Sherar said he’s been running PHO since mid-July, and this sounds like a very tough move for the new CEO. Moreover, this seems to be the planned strategy. Because PHO requested the code for Table’s dashboard earlier this summer and has since created its own version without Table’s knowledge. According to sources, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore was often unhappy with Dr. Peter Juni, the former science director of the Science Table, and his ubiquitous media presence, but Juni said: He left for a prestigious job at the University of Oxford in the UK. States that have resisted public health measures and often seemed unaware of the basic dynamics of the pandemic see the table as an opposing force. In many cases, they now have strong voting rights.

“Healthcare systems and populations will have to recover from the acute phase of the pandemic, and the science table would have been well positioned to point to system vulnerabilities and potential recovery plan weaknesses,” Jüni said. . in England. “This would have been very useful, but it would have put the government in an uncomfortable position. there is.

Of course, the situation isn’t crazy if vaccination and post-infection immunity are enough to mitigate the effects of COVID, and for now it’s only part of a larger crisis. As such, the government’s new long-term care patient transfer policy recognizes the crisis at the expense of Ontario’s most vulnerable people. The hospital system has been in deep crisis all summer. Fall and winter will be even more challenging, with the burden of COVID and other respiratory viruses layered on top of a tottering health system.

Whatever the reason here, the table has been a decidedly imperfect vessel that bridged the gap between science and public health in this state during the past two years of pandemics. approach to pandemics. When Omicron first appeared, Jüni was in phone contact with a South African scientist with first-hand knowledge of the new subspecies. media.

Dr. Peter Juni, Scientific Director of the former Scientific Table

The table got stuck at times. Modeling was highly accurate in the third wave, but fluctuates in the fall of 2021, and furthermore at Omicron, with only a wider range of uncertainty, accurately measuring the complex sequence of vaccinations, previous infections and hospitalizations. I could not do it. more.

But even on a volunteer basis, the table remains the sole source of independent and rigorous analysis that Ontario has undertaken during the pandemic, and regular attacks from the government and the government-sympathetic media undermine it. was telling a story.

In some ways, this is familiar territory. PHO has been draining talented scientists for at least a decade. During the pandemic, Chief Scientific Officer Dr Natasha Crowcroft moved to the World Health Organization, Chief Microbiologist Dr Vanessa Allen left to return to practice, and Head of Epidemics and Emergency Preparedness Sherry Dr. Deeks left to work in public. Nova Scotia Health after she revealed the state ignored scientific advice on COVID limit thresholds.

Beyond that, the state allowed the vaccine task force to expire in August 2021, and a group was formed to replace it with PHO. The impact of the latter group on Ontario’s vaccination policy has been difficult to discern due to insufficient booster intake and little encouragement of childhood vaccination.

So what’s going on here seems counterproductive, even as the scientific table and pandemics both evolve, admitting that all governments crave as much control as they can. If Public Health Ontario was looking to rebuild after years of chasing away scientific talent, this looks like a bad start for Sherar. There are better, more productive ways to do it.

Many shrug their shoulders and move on, but are told to do so.

But if the tables are closed, the result could be even less confidence in public health, even less transparency, and the exclusion of independent, rational analysis in Ontario.

Moore may have sparked relationships with so many prominent scientists that the government will own it no matter what happens over the winter. The smartest group of people in Ontario who tried with their time and money to deal with the biggest crisis in the state’s history, doing what others couldn’t or didn’t. , it’s probably done.

Correction — August 25, 2022 at 11:10 PM: This article was edited to correct the previously misspelled name of Ontario Public Health Director Michael Sherar.

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