Chairman's Desk

Pandemic failures are disheartening, but they must move us forward

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 4, 2021.

This has become a dispiriting phase of the pandemic. This week, Ontario slammed the emergency brake on — again.

At times like this, as we enter our second year of missing Passovers, Easters and birthdays — feeling like we are all being held hostage to a string of disheartening failures — it can help to take the long view.

I’ve written in this space before that COVID-19 is the second pandemic that I have lived through — the first one being the HIV-AIDS crisis weathered in the 1980s and 1990s.

And while you can’t comparatively rate loss and pain, despair then seemed endlessly prolonged by a string of failures, and because of the lack of a pharmaceutical salvation.

It has been 40 years since researchers started looking for an HIV vaccine, and the story has been one of failure after bitter failure. Even some of the characters in that pandemic — like Dr. Anthony Fauci — are reappearing in this one, the same then as now.

So it made for some welcome good news this week to learn that, according to a new paper published by economist Jeffrey E. Harris at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all of those failures have amounted to something precious indeed.

Harris finds that more than 85 per cent of the technology powering the COVID-19 vaccine candidates can be traced back to prototypes tested in HIV vaccine trials, from the synthetic mRNA in Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, to the viral-vector model used by Johnson & Johnson in their single-shot COVID-19 vaccine.

There is a certain poetic beauty in this realization. After a long winter of suffering and discontent, there comes a hopeful spring. (This is true in HIV-AIDS research as well, which still has no vaccine, but does have a prophylactic in the form of Truvada, a once-daily pill that can prevent HIV infection, in addition to the breakthrough antiretrovirals that truly turned the tide back in the mid-1990s.)

But in Harris’ finding, there is also an important lesson for the rest of us.

And by the rest of us, I mean here is where politicians and policy-makers can learn from scientists. Success can grow from failure — but only if we are honest with ourselves, rigorous and transparent in our approach, and clear-eyed about what works and what doesn’t.

The difficult part is that we can never know which failures or dead ends today will be redeemed tomorrow. That process begins with a clinical examination of what went wrong, and we are in the earliest stages of that process, even as we continue to grapple with COVID-19 in real time.

Auditor General of Canada Karen Hogan’s recently released report is only the first of what will no doubt become an entire genre of bureaucratic literature: the COVID-19 post-mortem.

In her report, Hogan found that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was unprepared for the pandemic, with some of the issues marring the early response to COVID having been flagged as far back as 20 years ago.

The picture of the agency that Hogan paints reflects a broader failing of the federal government, which is the atrophying of Canada’s state capacity (i.e., our ability to effectively mobilize its decision-making apparatus in a crisis). For a country that was traumatized by SARS to have a federal public health agency unprepared for a pandemic is inexplicable. It reflects a concerning inability to learn from our past failures.

On the other hand, it is not all doom and gloom. Hogan found that while PHAC’s response was fumbled, other branches of the federal government did an admirable job in quickly ushering out new support payments for workers and businesses in the pandemic’s early days.

If we accept that part of the reason for that decline in state capacity is our general inability to proceed without endless box-ticking and other forms of bureaucratic red tape, the rapid response exemplified by CEWS and CERB were the exception that made the rule. Turns out it actually was possible to move fast and adjust later.

These are our earliest learnings, but the trick will be to not be deaf to them. The trick will be to find the confidence to allow us to have our failure move us forward.