Politics

Trudeau, ministers back Dr. Tam and Health Canada after Jason Kenney attacks pandemic response

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and key federal ministers today dismissed Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's criticism of Canada's top doctor and the approval process for new drugs and equipment by Health Canada, insisting Canada will stay the course on its pandemic response.

Andrew Scheer says he supports provinces going around Health Canada if there is a 'legal mechanism' to do so

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. The premier has questioned early statements by Canada's chief public health officer about the pandemic. (Canadian Press photos)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and key federal ministers today dismissed Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's criticism of Canada's top doctor and the approval process for new drugs and equipment by Health Canada, insisting Canada will stay the course on its pandemic response.

"I understand that people can get anxious and impatient about things. But as a government we are going to remain grounded in science. We are going to remain grounded in our experts, who are doing an excellent job in ensuring that Canadians are kept safe and healthy," Trudeau told reporters Tuesday.

"We are going to continue to work with top medical officials like Dr. Theresa Tam to make sure we are doing everything we need to do, and have done every step of the way, to keep Canadians safe."

On Monday evening, Kenney called out Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam over her early statements on the progress of the pandemic, accusing her of parroting messages presented by the People's Republic of China.

In the same interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics, the premier also said he will not wait for Health Canada to approve medications, vaccines or tests for COVID-19 before rolling them out in Alberta if other "peer" countries, such as Australia, the U.S. and the European Union, have approved them.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's was asked by CBC's Tom Parry for his reaction to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's claim on CBC's Power and Politics that Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam had been repeating "talking points out of the [People's Republic of China]." 0:45

While provincial governments are responsible for the delivery of health care in Canada, the approval of drugs, medical devices, disinfectants and sanitizers with disinfectant claims is the responsibility of the Health Products and Food Branch (HPFB) of Health Canada.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said it's important for Canadians to know that new medical devices and treatments have been approved to ensure they are effective and do not pose a danger to the public.

"We are so grateful ... to have the leadership of Dr. Tam and [Deputy Chief Public Health Officer] Dr. [Howard] Njoo and, in fact, the entire public health team and Health Canada ... working day and night to help us as a country manage the coronavirus, COVID-19, and our response to it," Hajdu said.

The health minister also said that she has "confidence in how hard Health Canada is working" to investigate every possible drug, treatment and device that could help to fight the pandemic.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said going around the Health Canada approval process was a "decision for every provincial government to make," adding that "often Canada is the last to get drugs for individuals or products for other types of industries as well."

But Scheer said he only supports provinces using medical devices or treatments that have not been approved by HPFB "if there is a legal mechanism for them to make those decisions."

The CBC's Julie van Dusen asks federal ministers to react to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's statement on CBC's Power and Politics that he will not wait for Health Canada to approve COVID-19 medications, vaccines or tests before rolling them out if other "peer" countries have approved them already. 4:51

Treatments and drugs can be used in Canada even if they are not yet approved by HPFB under the Special Access Program. The program only allows the use of a drug or device once it has determined that conventional options have failed, the need is legitimate and a qualified physician is involved in the test or treatment.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada's two greatest strengths in fighting the pandemic to date have been co-operation between the provincial and federal governments and the quality of advice Canada has been getting from public health officials such as Dr. Tam.

"In municipalities across the country, chief public health officers have been essential to municipal responses. I have observed, as a former journalist, that chief public health officers across the country have become this generation's rock stars and that is entirely appropriate," Freeland said.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he isn't going to wait for Health Canada to play catch-up with other credible health regulators before pursuing potential coronavirus tests or treatments.    5:33

Kenney said that while he thinks Dr. Tam is qualified to hold her position as Canada's top doctor, he maintains that it was wrong for Canada "not to follow the lead of jurisdictions like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and others who closed their borders from countries with a high rate of infection months earlier than Canada did."

Kenney also said Tam was "repeating talking points out of the [People's Republic of China] about the no evidence of human-to-human transmission."

Asked Tuesday if she thought Kenney was trying to undermine her authority, Dr. Tam said she has experienced "incredible collaboration" with provincial chief medical officers, including Alberta's, and expects that to continue.

She also said that Health Canada has made a number of key approvals since the pandemic started, including authorizations for 51 medical devices, 13 testing kits and 39 diagnostic devices.

Dr. Tam said the approvals process is the fastest way to ensure that treatments or devices being rolled out are actually effective and safe.

"We do want to ensure safety and the actual effectiveness of these tools. And I think the health community understands that," she said.

Expert criticizes Canada's response

Amir Attaran, a law professor and expert in epidemiology and public health at the University of Ottawa, offered a blunt critique of Canada's response to COVID-19 during an appearance at the House of Commons health committee Tuesday. 

He said that when it comes to testing, epidemiological data collection and modelling, Canada's performance is "quite dreadful" compared to other jurisdictions like Hong Kong, Norway, South Korea and Switzerland.  

Scientists need data from every province to develop accurate disease models, he said. He accused some provinces of not sharing enough information and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) of censoring data before release.

He said PHAC is struggling to model the epidemic and that the modelling presented to date is "incomplete, laced with errors and unscientific gibberish."

"The result is that scientists inside and outside government only have an incomplete data picture to work with. With one eye gouged out, they can't churn out the best possible epidemiological forecasts, meaning Canada bumbles into the endgame unfit and unready," he said.

Attaran, who released his own epidemiological modelling with a group of American and British scientists today, said self-isolation was the only way to avoid getting crushed by a novel pandemic.

Going forward, he said, the best approach is to not relax self-isolation all at once but to move in "careful, scientifically tailored stages."

"If isolation ends for everyone at the same time, we will immediately return to the same hellish spot we just dodged," he said. 

Attaran said his findings suggest Canada is now over the crest and has emerged with a relatively low number of infections. But he warned that officials must plan to respond to future waves in a way that limits the death count and effects on the economy.

With files from the CBC's Kathleen Harris

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