Canada·Coronavirus Brief

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 1

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for December 1st.
Health-care workers in the Philippines cross a river as they transport COVID-19 vaccines to rural villages on Wednesday in Aringay, La Union province. The country, which has just approved booster shots for its adult population, launched a three-day national vaccination holiday for Nov. 29 to Dec. 1 with the goal of vaccinating at least nine million additional people. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Ontario auditor general report highlights issues of pandemic aid waste, fraud

Ontario businesses that weren't eligible for pandemic relief programs received more than $200 million in provincial supports, others were given more money than they lost and some hard-hit vendors were excluded altogether, the province's auditor general Bonnie Lysyk reported on Wednesday.

Pandemic programs for businesses totalled $11.2 billion, or about one-third of the money allocated for provincial COVID-19 relief. But the auditor found those programs lacked clear goals or consultation with the most-affected businesses, and eligibility criteria was poorly defined, allowing thousands of ineligible businesses to receive the funds.

One such program was the Ontario Small Business Support Grant, which the audit found lacked controls to weed out ineligible applicants. That meant $210 million went to 14,500 ineligible recipients — which the province isn't trying to recover — and another $6 million in payments is still being investigated.

As well, the audit found that nearly half of businesses that received grants got more money than they actually lost in revenue, to a total difference of more about $714 million.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath blasted the government in the legislature for a lack of transparency on how decisions were made to allocate funds and the failure to recover funds.

When asked about the findings, Premier Doug Ford pointed to those who benefited from the government's pandemic aid "to a tune of $3.3. billion."

"When we're rushing the money out the door to support the small businesses that were in desperate need of it, unfortunately, you're going to see some fraud."

While likely an unsatisfying answer to many taxpayers, it is possibly accurate. Recent reports from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick auditors raised concern that the rush to provide COVID-19 aid without strong accountability controls left those provinces open to risk.

At the federal level, Conservatives are wanting answers after a recently obtained financial intelligence report indicated that criminals and organized crime appeared to have "knowingly and actively" defrauded the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and Canada emergency business account (CEBA) programs.

The Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), the country's financial intelligence wing, observed that during the first few months of the CERB program, criminal organizations filed multiple applications using stolen identities.

In the U.S., estimates of pandemic-related fraud or overpayments are at eye-watering levels, including $4 billion in Michigan and $20 billion in California.

Arrests and prosecutions at the individual level are picking up rapidly in the U.S., too: there are employees at a New York bank accused of being part of a $3-million scam, eight Philadelphia Police Department employees possibly on the wrong side of the law, a Texas man who treated himself to a Lamborghini with his ill-gotten COVID-19 funds, a Massachusetts man who tried to fake his own death to avoid sentencing in a pandemic fraud case and a California couple in a $20-million fraudulent scheme who have been convicted in absentia because they are fugitives, apparently leaving their kids behind.

Back in Ontario, three people face criminal charges in connection with an alleged embezzlement scheme that is said to have defrauded $11 million from Ontario's Support for Families pandemic program.

It is entirely possible that as COVID-19 headlines fade from a public health standpoint, stories of pandemic fraud and waste will continue to shake out well into the future.

From The National

How Canadian researchers are preparing for the next pandemic

7 months ago
Duration 3:53
As the world fights the latest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian researchers are analyzing hundreds of bat specimens in order to identify new viruses and get a head start on future vaccines.

IN BRIEF

Ottawa requiring COVID-19 testing for more travellers in light of omicron

Incoming air travellers from all countries except the United States will be required to take COVID-19 tests when arriving in Canada, the federal government announced Tuesday.

The tests will be required of all travellers, regardless of their vaccination status, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said. The requirement will also apply to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Incoming travellers will have to self-isolate until they receive results of the test.

Canada's attempt to contain the variant now includes bans on travellers from 10 countries, all of them in Africa. The government named seven countries to its restricted list last week, adding Egypt, Malawi and Nigeria on Tuesday. Incoming travellers from those 10 countries will have to quarantine in designated facilities, officials said. Other travellers will be allowed to quarantine at home or at other locations.

The introduction of travel bans has been criticized as ineffective and discriminatory toward African countries, many of which have not had a large supply of vaccines until very recently.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, described the travel restrictions as a temporary measure meant to help the government adapt. "We can't close down our borders," Njoo said. "This is a measure to gain time, in order to have a better understanding of the virus."

The new announcements came the same day Canadians no longer require a COVID-19 test if travelling to the U.S. for less than 72 hours, pleasing border-adjacent businesses on both sides.

While Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino stressed that there is "mandatory randomized" testing for those who cross the land border from the U.S., he did not directly answer in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics on Tuesday as to whether the American exception is subject to change.

In addition to navigating the rules enacted by Canadian officials, travellers may soon have to adjust to new American requirements. President Joe Biden is expected to announce revisions on Thursday, with the Washington Post reporting that a more strict, recent testing requirement for arrivals by air is expected and a seven-day quarantine period has been discussed.

Meanwhile, travel and tourism operators around the globe are hoping omicron is not a variant that will set back the industry to an earlier pandemic state.

Merck's COVID-19 pill gets U.S. approval, but with many reservations

It was just a few weeks ago that there was speculation in some quarters over whether COVID-19 treatments in pill form would be a gamechanger to go along with vaccinations in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, U.S. health advisers to the Food and Drug Administration seemed to suggest that the applications for Merck's molnupiaravir pill may be much more limited. The FDA panel voted 13-10 that the antiviral drug's benefits outweigh its risks, which include potential birth defects if used during pregnancy.

The vote specifically backed the drug for adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who face the greatest risks, including older people and those with conditions like obesity and asthma. Most experts also said the drug shouldn't be used in vaccinated people, who weren't part of Merck's research. British health experts are said to be conducting a trial of molnupirarivr involving vaccinated individuals after the drug was recently approved there.

As well, Merck submitted its data for review before omicron was detected, adding another layer of uncertainty.

"With no data saying it works with new variants, I really think we need to be careful about saying that this is the way to go," said Dr. David Hardy of Charles Drew University school of medicine and science in Los Angeles, who ultimately voted to back the drug.

Merck trumpeted trial results involving molnupiravir several weeks ago, but last Friday released updated data that painted a less compelling picture of the drug's effectiveness. Merck said final study results showed molnupiravir reduced hospitalization and death by 30 per cent among adults infected with the coronavirus, when compared with adults taking a placebo. That effect was significantly less than the 50 per cent reduction it first announced based on incomplete results.

For many panelists, the modest effect wasn't enough to outweigh the drug's potential toxicity to human fetuses.

"Given the large potential population affected, the risk of widespread effects on potential birth defects has not been adequately studied," said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan of the University of Utah school of medicine, who voted against the drug.

Merck's drug inserts tiny errors into the coronavirus' genetic code to stop it from reproducing. That genetic effect has raised concerns that the drug could spur more virulent strains of the virus. FDA regulators said Tuesday that risk is theoretical but many panellists said it should be carefully tracked.

Concerns have also been raised, medical website Stat reports, over long-term effects to patient DNA, potentially causing long-term harms like cancer. Given that many have even been opposed to receiving mRNA vaccines, it's reasonable to ask whether there will be objections raised by potential recipients to that DNA concern.

The markets on Wednesday still reacted positively despite the panel concerns that came down late Tuesday, with Merck shares up between one and two per cent through the trading day.

Merck has submitted data to Health Canada but it's not clear when Canadian regulators might decide on approving a temporary authorization. As stated, its suitability for vaccinated people is not proven, and Canada's rate of vaccination is significantly higher than that of the U.S.

While Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics were the first to submit their COVID-19 pill to the FDA, rival drugmaker Pfizer is close behind with its own pill under review. 

But both drugs require patients to take multiple pills per day, and per Stat, Pfizer's needs to be taken alongside ritonavir, which interacts with many drugs.

Today's graphic:

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With files from Reuters, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press

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