Ontario’s Independent Voluntary Science Table, an invaluable source of information and guidance throughout the pandemic, has been told it will be disbanded.
It would be an abrupt and shocking move on the part of Public Health Ontario, which had agreed to take over the table of more than 40 scientists from its former home at the University of Toronto, and had negotiated a term with the then co-chair. , Steini Brown, during the summer.
The Department of Health denies the table will be closed, saying “the work of the (scientific advisory table) would continue”, and when pressed, “the SAT is not closed”.
But according to a summary circulated among the science table and obtained by the Star, new PHO chief Michael Sherar told the table Aug. 18 that he would shut it down Sept. 6. The science table’s peerless pandemic dashboard would be taken down, its access to data gone, its projects blocked. In its place, PHO would establish an advisory group of 15 hand-picked people, without a formal scientific director, with limited independence from PHO or the Chief Medical Officer of Health — no ability to unilaterally select review topics. study, for example — and much less clinical competence.
Public Health Ontario is directly responsible for the negotiations and did not deny that the table was closed; he simply said that negotiations were underway to “establish terms of reference that reflect a sustainable long-term approach” and that “membership will continue to be composed of independent experts”.
Conversations with SPO and table sources have confirmed the contents of the letter, which painstakingly traces the negotiations over the past month.
Even if disbanding was a negotiation tactic, there doesn’t seem to be a way here.
On August 2, SPO reversed previously negotiated terms and on August 11 proposed new parameters that strictly limited both independence and transparency. They gave the table a September 6 deadline to agree to the new restrictive terms, and a week later Sherar cut to the chase.
It is understood that removing Independence would be a deal breaker for the table, and everything points to an end. When told the ministry had denied they were closed, a member of the science table simply replied, “BS.” No further negotiations are currently planned.
Surely there were ways to take the strong contributions of this group and use them to serve the public as the pandemic evolves. This scenario, however, seems closer to arson.
The Emerging COVID Medicines Table Task Force, led by Dr. Menaka Pai and Dr. Andrew Morris, had become the nation’s leading staff on a difficult, fast-paced and highly technical topic; conversations with physicians across the province have long confirmed that their pipeline drug memoirs have become a vital resource not replicated anywhere else in Canada. With periodic drug shortages in a rapidly emerging field, it has become a valuable resource and has surely saved lives.
Beyond that, there were working groups on mental health, on behavioral sciences as it relates to vaccine uptake, on long-term care, and groups were being developed on the equity – the table has been key in advancing the numerical case for more equitable vaccination policies, which the province has often resisted – and pediatrics, involving some of the province’s most prominent scientists, bringing together disparate institutions. And they are volunteers, so cost can’t be the issue.
It is unclear who is actually behind this decision. Sherar has only been running PHO since mid-July, and that would seem like an unusually strident move for a new CEO; Additionally, this appears to be a planned strategy, as SPO requested the table’s dashboard code earlier this summer and has since created its own unbeknownst version of the table. Sources say Chief Medical Officer Dr Kieran Moore was often frustrated with the Scientific Table’s former Scientific Director Dr Peter Jüni and his pervasive media presence, but Jüni left for a high-profile position at the University of Oxford in England. The province, which resisted public health measures and often appeared to misunderstand the underlying dynamics of the pandemic, often viewed the table as an opposition force, and now has a strong electoral mandate.
“The health system and the population must recover from the acute phase of the pandemic, and the scientific table would have been able to point out the vulnerabilities of the system and the weaknesses of a possible recovery plan,” said Jüni, reached United Kingdom. “It would have been extremely helpful, but would have put the government in an uncomfortable position. If you just want to do your thing, or pretend that everything is fine like it is right now, you need to eliminate the science table.
The situation is not blameless, of course, even if vaccination and post-infection immunity have reduced the impact of COVID enough that it has become, for the moment, only part of a crisis. wider. As TVO’s John McGrath cleverly pointed out, the government’s new long-term care patient transfer policy is an acknowledgment of the crisis, at the expense of some of Ontario’s most vulnerable. The hospital system has been in severe crisis all summer; the fall and winter, with the burden of COVID and other respiratory viruses superimposed on a faltering healthcare system, will be even more challenging.
Whatever the reasoning here, the table has been an admittedly flawed vessel that has filled a gaping void in science and public health in this province over the past two pandemic years, during which it has often pushed the government of the Ontario to adopt public health measures and consider equity in its approach to the pandemic. He was more responsive than the government – when Omicron first appeared, Jüni was on the phone to his scientific contacts in South Africa with first-hand knowledge of the new variant – and worked harder to communicate real information through briefings, where permitted, and through the media.
The picture faltered at times: the modeling, so accurate in the third wave, faltered in the fall of 2021 and further in Omicron, where the range of uncertainties only grew and it failed to assess accurately the complex array of vaccinations, previous infection, hospitalizations and more.
But even on a voluntary basis, the table remained the only source of independent and rigorous analysis available to Ontario during the pandemic, and the periodic attacks by government and pro-government media were telling.
In a way, this is familiar territory: SPO has been bleeding talented scientists for at least a decade. During the pandemic, Scientific Director Dr. Natasha Crowcroft left for the World Health Organization, Chief Microbiologist Dr. Vanessa Allen left to resume the practice, and Chief of Communicable Diseases and emergency preparedness, Dr. Shelley Deeks, went to work in public. health in Nova Scotia after it was revealed that the province had ignored its scientific advice regarding COVID restriction thresholds.
Beyond that, the province allowed its vaccine task force to expire in August 2021, and a group was formed at OPH to replace it; the effect of the latter group on vaccination policy in Ontario, where booster use has been poor and pediatric vaccination hardly promoted, has been difficult to discern.
So what’s happening here seems counterproductive, even if you recognize that both the science table and the pandemic have moved on, and every government yearns for as much control as possible. If Public Health Ontario was looking to rebuild after years of hunting scientific talent, it seems like a bad start for Sherar. If Moore wanted to consolidate power, there is a better and more productive way to do it.
Many people will shrug their shoulders and move on, which they were told to do.
But if the table is closed, the result will likely be a further reduction in trust in public health, a further reduction in transparency and an elimination of independent, reasoned analysis in Ontario.
Moore may be setting fire to his relationship with a slew of eminent scientists, and the government will own whatever happens during the winter. In the end, the science table was simply a group of some of the smartest people in Ontario who tried to tackle the biggest crisis in the province’s history at their own pace and in their own way, and did what others could not or would not do. And now it’s probably done.
Correction — 11:10 p.m. on August 25, 2022: This article has been edited to correct the name of Public Health Ontario Chief Michael Sherar, which was previously misspelled.