SARS vs. COVID-19: What we didn't learn the last time
This week, as Ontario records its 1 millionth confirmed case of COVID-19, a senior researcher into the 2003 SARS outbreak says recommendations made to blunt the impact of a future pandemic were not followed.
Four years after SARS killed 44 Canadians and 774 people worldwide, Justice Archie Campbell wrote that the outbreak “taught us lessons that can help us redeem our failures.”
“If we do not learn the lessons to be taken from SARS, however, and if we do not make present governments fix the problems that remain, we will pay a terrible price in the face of future outbreaks of virulent disease.”
For Mario Possamai, a senior advisor to Campbell, who oversaw the report’s creation, the failure of public health officials across the country to heed that warning led to the devastating effects of COVID-19.
“Justice Campbell really laid out a blueprint for tackling a pandemic, like the one we’ve been suffering, in a manner that really was able to address and mitigate the risk in an effective manner,” Possamai told CTV News Toronto.
“And the fact that we’ve blown it, in many ways, I think would have been heartbreaking for him.”
Campbell died the same year the report was released.
In the past 22 months, Ontario has seen 1,001,455 lab confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 11,004 deaths.
Possamai believes those numbers could have been much lower, had the province, and federal public health officials, listened to the key message of the 2007 report: the precautionary principal.
“In the event of scientific uncertainty, like there was for COVID-19 early on, you don’t wait for certainty, you err on the side of caution and you err in a manner that protects health-care workers, workers in general, and the public. We didn’t do that,” Possamai said.
Possamai points to the early days of the pandemic, when he says there were already signs that COVID-19 was an airborne disease, a point he says was ignored at the time.
Public health officials in Canada have shied away from using the term “airborne” to describe how the novel coronavirus is spread. Instead, choosing to focus on preventing the spread of the virus via droplets through mask wearing.
Only in more recent months have provinces and local public health units started to publicly acknowledge that, in light of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, aerosols are likely playing a part in how the disease spreads.
A similar debate took place when SARS made its way into Ontario.
A woman stops to read a sign announcing that the SARS clinic at Women's College Hospital is closed in Toronto on Thursday April 24, 2003. (CP PHOTO/Frank Gunn)
According to the World Health Organization, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, was a virus from an animal reservoir that spread to other animals and first infected humans in China in 2002.
The report notes that there was no consensus on whether the virus was transmitted by large droplets or through airborne particles. However, the report recommended that public health decisions not be driven by the “scientific dogma of yesterday or even the scientific dogma of today.”
“We should be driven by the precautionary principle that reasonable steps to reduce risk should not await scientific certainty,” the report read.
The 2006 SARS Commission also found that many health-care workers contracted the virus after going to another unit to help out, a trend that was seen at the beginning of the pandemic in the province’s hospitals and long-term care homes and continues to this day with nearly 50 per cent of hospital staff across Ontario working part-time.
On top of ignoring the precautionary principle, Possamai said that the amount of available personal protective equipment made available to Canadians at the start of COVID-19 was insufficient.
Dr. David Naylor, co-chair of Canada's National COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and professor of medicine at University of Toronto, chaired the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health and said that their report (separate from the 2006 SARS Commission) also made clear the importance of having and adequate supply of PPE.
“The bigger issue, that I think is being pinpointed, is the one around stockpiles, which really were depleted [at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic] and was a basic principle we had identified in the 2003 report,” Naylor told CTV News Toronto. “We had to be table topping. We had to be on top of contingencies and possibilities. We had to have PPE stockpiles. So that was a bit of a disappointment to put it very gently.”
In a statement to CTV News Toronto, Ontario's Ministry of Health said, "Given the global scarcity of personal protective equipment during the initial stages of the pandemic, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Government and Consumer Services and partners mobilized quickly to acquire and supply PPE for workers in the health system and other critical sectors."
"We have adapted as the pandemic has evolved and the province currently has a sufficient stockpile and continues to build up its domestic supply," the statement read.
In May of last year, a report by Auditor General Karen Hogan found that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was not adequately prepared to respond to the surging demand for PPE, which was a result of decades-long issues with managing Canada’s stockpile of emergency supplies.
Since then, Ottawa has pledged to revisit its supply management and said it would work to use up items before they expire and PHAC also agreed to make a series of changes “within one year of the end of the pandemic.”
And while it appears as though the Omicron-fuelled wave of recent COVID-19 infections appears to be waning, Possamai said he wants to see those who have not followed the warnings of the past take some responsibility for their actions and lack of action.
“We need some accountability. The people who have dropped the ball need to be held accountable for this terrible tragedy,” Possamai said.
With files from Rahim Ladhani, Katherine DeClerq, and Rachel Aiello
A nurse is shown wearing protective clothing at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on March 17, 2003. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kevin Frayer
Toronto Top Stories
CTVNews.ca Top Stories
Lifeline for woman with disabilities approved for medically assisted death after 'mind-blowing, inspiring' support
A 31-year-old disabled Toronto woman who was conditionally approved for a medically assisted death after a fruitless bid for safe housing says her life has been 'changed' by an outpouring of support after telling her story.
The police official blamed for not sending officers in more quickly to stop the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting is the chief of the school system's small police force, a unit dedicated ordinarily to building relationships with students and responding to the occasional fight.
Fifty-eight-year-old Vivian Ketchum is set to receive her high school diploma at a graduation ceremony at the University of Winnipeg next month. It is a moment that is decades in the making.
The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos was met with justifiable criticisms and unfounded conspiracy theories.
Speakers at the National Rifle Association annual meeting assailed a Chicago gun ban that doesn't exist, ignored security upgrades at the Texas school where children were slaughtered and roundly distorted national gun and crime statistics as they pushed back against any tightening of gun laws.
An 11-year-old survivor of the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Texas, feared the gunman would come back for her so she smeared herself in her friend's blood and played dead.
Students trapped inside a classroom with a gunman repeatedly called 911 during this week's attack on a Texas elementary school, including one who pleaded, 'Please send the police now,' as officers waited more than an hour to breach the classroom after following the gunman into the building, authorities said Friday.
Fragments of a comet broken nearly 30 years ago could potentially light up the night sky Monday as experts predict an 'all or nothing' spectacle.
A new report says Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto rank among the top 20 cities around the world when it comes to work-life balance.
Is it unconstitutional to make someone pay to get a legal document translated into French? One of Montreal's top lawyers thinks so, and pointed out two other things from Bill 96 that he thinks the courts would most easily find fault with.
Canada's highest court has ruled that Alexandre Bissonnette, who murdered six people at the Quebec City mosque in 2017, will be eligible for parole after 25 years.
Quebec says it is ready to vaccinate people who have come into close contact with monkeypox as soon as Friday.
Saturday’s powerful storm left a lasting impact across Ontario as city crews continue to deal with the damage. Western University’s Northern Tornado Project reported that two EF-1 tornadoes touched down in London — and on Friday, Environment Canada confirmed it.
A London man is facing impaired-related charges after a vehicle he was driving collided with a gravel truck on Wednesday morning, according to police.
The London Police Service is requesting the public’s help with locating a person of interest after a gun was fired on Richmond Row in the early morning hours of Friday.
A man, who was a referee at high school volleyball games in Guelph for more than 30 years, is facing sex assault-related charges.
The Region of Waterloo says there's a high safety risk at a Kitchener encampment and they are working with residents to prepare them for their eventual move.
Two low-cost airlines are butting heads over an agreement at the Region of Waterloo International Airport. Swoop wants to offer flights but the airport already has an exclusivity deal with rival Flair Airlines
Thursday evening, the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce hosted the 25th annual Bell Business Excellence Awards.
On Friday, there was a walk in Sudbury to remember the remains of 215 residential schoolchildren found in Kamloops, B.C., a year ago May 27.
Staff at the new Sault Metis Centre are getting set for the grand opening Saturday.
Hydro Ottawa is not committing to a new deadline to restore power to thousands of customers, one week after a devastating storm with wind gusts of 190 km/h hit Ottawa.
It's the first in-person Ottawa Race Weekend in Ottawa since 2019, after the 2020 and 2021 events were shifted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Friday evening, 26,000 Hydro Ottawa customers remain without power in all neighbourhoods of the city.
Windsor police are asking for the public’s help identify a driver who fled after a rollover crash.
'Just do Mable things': Father of 18-year-old Pain Court crash victim shares memories of his daughter
It’s been a long and sorrow-filled week for the extended families of Mable Baker, an 18-year-old Chatham-Kent woman who was involved in a fatal car crash last weekend.
A local musician will be back on stage for the 16th annual 24-Hour Drum Marathon.
On the final day of the Paul Sadlon sexual assault trial, the defence called the complainant's allegations "straight out lies" and "not believable at all."
Provincial police are searching for a missing senior who went for a walk with his two dogs on trails behind his home in Springwater Township Thursday afternoon.
An Aurora couple is making plans to buy a house after winning the lottery.
A Cape Breton father is warning the public of the dangers in the area he lives after his teenager son fell nearly 40 feet over a cliff in Glace Bay.
A lawyer for families of victims killed in the Nova Scotia mass shooting says an 18-hour delay in finding five bodies of those murdered is a sign of "deficient" policing.
The lawyer who represented a man who murdered three RCMP officers nearly eight years ago in Moncton, N.B., said a decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada Friday may potentially change his sentence.
A southern Alberta man who killed three people, including a two-year-old girl, could have the ability to request a release from jail earlier than his original sentence intended, thanks to a landmark Supreme Court decision Friday.
Calgary Flames fans are still coming to terms with a playoff series loss to the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night in a game that saw both controversy and heartbreak following a Connor McDavid overtime goal.
Western Canada's premiers want to reform their health-care systems by expanding services but they say Ottawa first needs to pick up the phone.
Pembina Trails School Division is confirming to CTV News that a group of students found a body during community cleanup at Ècole South Pointe School.
Winnipeg police are telling people to find an alternate route this afternoon as they are investigating a fatal crash near the St. Boniface Industrial Park.
'It's one way to be creative': Winnipeg student wants to be a bartender when older; school doesn't like comment in yearbook
Bartender. That is what one Grade 4 student said for the yearbook when asked what he wanted to be when he grows up, an answer the school is asking him to change.
A B.C. mom with a rare, debilitating illness has spent years trying to get the help she needs. Now she's considering medical assistance in dying.
The number of COVID-19 patients in B.C. hospitals hit its lowest point in more than a month this week, and the decline was driven largely by regions outside the Lower Mainland.
Researchers working in partnership with UBC believe an eco-friendly material could help solve the world’s plastic pollution problem.
A hotly-controversial decision on whether or not to freeze base funding for police in Edmonton was delayed Friday as fallout from a dispute between the mayor and the provincial justice minister continued to rattle political circles.
A 19-year-old man is in police custody after a shooting near Rogers Place after an Edmonton Oilers viewing party ended Thursday evening.
A shelter many expected to remain open until the end of June in Wetaskiwin, Alta., will close a month early.