|A little-known medical unit within Canadian Forces Intelligence Command briefed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the COVID-19 crisis on Jan. 17, the government confirmed in a document presented to Parliament this week. The briefing from the medical intelligence (MEDINT) unit came 17 days after the China country office of the World Health Organization (WHO) was informed of cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause in Wuhan.
While the minister was briefed in mid-January about the new virus, the government’s incident response group — led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and composed of cabinet ministers and other senior governmental officials — didn’t meet to discuss COVID-19 until 10 days later, on Jan. 27. By that date, 82 people had died and more than 2,800 cases had been confirmed in mainland China. More cases were being reported throughout the rest of Asia and around the world.
“We do not comment on specific intelligence reports,” Floriane Bonneville, a spokesperson for Sajjan, said in an email statement to CBC News when asked about the delay.
In response to an order paper question from Conservative MP James Bezan, the Department of National Defence confirmed that the medical intelligence unit shared its briefing documents about COVID-19 widely with other departments and agencies. While the contents of the briefing are not publicly known, it is clear that the machinery of government was aware of COVID-19 and its spread well before the Public Health Agency of Canada co-ordinated an almost complete shutdown of economic and social life two months later, in mid-March.
As late as March 10, a department-drafted briefing note prepared for Health Minister Patty Hajdu said, “the risk of spread of this virus within Canada remains low at this time.” Just 12 cases were reported nationwide at that point, although publicly available numbers already had climbed higher. The note also said the public health system is “well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad, limiting the spread in Canada.” A month later, Canada would have more than 21,000 cases, many of them linked to China, Europe and U.S. travel.