Evidence of meeting #8 for Government Operations and Estimates in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was testing.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Pat Whalen  Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, LuminUltra Technologies Ltd.
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Paul Cardegna
Paul Lem  Chief Executive Officer, Spartan Bioscience Inc.
Kevin Smith  President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

12:20 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

Yes, I have had a chance, both through our elected officials and through the tri-councils and other research officials with the Government of Canada. A number of our investigators have already been fortunate to receive awards from the Government of Canada for COVID-related research. We actually had to cease the majority of research when COVID occurred, and immediately ramped up again so that we could undertake COVID research during the epidemic.

At the same time, our researchers, always industrious people, have come up with important scientific questions from both an applied and a curiosity-driven level. Since then, one of the more pressing issues with our virology and immunology group is the creation of a vaccine.

I'm very encouraged by the investment, but also by the degree of partnership I'm seeing across the country. Research can often be seen as a solitary enterprise. I would say I have never seen our nation, or frankly our scientific world, more united in asking important questions and collaborating across the country and the world with literally the very best minds of their disciplines in an open source science, collaborating in real time.

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Irek Kusmierczyk Liberal Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

That's wonderful. Thank you very much for that response.

Our previous witnesses, Mr. Lem and Mr. Whalen, talked about exemplary collaboration and co-operation with the federal government, in particular with PHAC, ISED and PSPC.

Are you able to speak to how you've been able to work with those particular departments or ministries? Are you able to speak to how helpful they've been in the work you're doing right now and in the work you're doing in collaboration with third party private sector companies especially?

12:20 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

Yes, there has been a very rapid response. I'll quote our in-house legal counsel, who said, “In all of my career, I have never seen things done more quickly on any issue between multiple levels of government and the private sector.” People have truly rolled up their sleeves and really done their very best, both in research and in attempting to crack the supply chain challenges.

PHAC as well has been very accessible and available. Much of that has come through our chief medical officers of health, but also direct outreach. I know PHAC has been very active in the reagent pursuit, particularly for testing.

Personally, based on the expertise of my colleagues in virology and immunology, I think we will be looking at a massive testing and tracing strategy going forward. I know Dr. Naylor is chairing a committee nationally that will be looking more broadly at this.

I was heartened today to see in South Korea that this is their first day with zero new cases. I think there is much to be learned internationally by looking at, first, those countries where the pandemic struck earlier, and second, those countries that are now coming out of it and what has been most effective.

I think PHAC has also been openly available for consultation with our infectious disease experts.

Regarding Health Canada, I want to give a special shout-out to the deputy minister, who has been available, accessible and readily reaching out to the field.

I have to say, while hospitals can be places where we're quick to be critical about things during difficult times, or maybe not so difficult times, the response and the collaboration across multiple levels of government, including, in our case, the City of Toronto, have really been second to none in terms of the ability to roll up our sleeves and get going.

However, we are very frustrated by some of those things that don't happen quickly, that are beyond the control of any level of government, particularly the international supply of personal protective equipment and testing equipment. I suspect we run the risk of that being true in vaccine production when, hopefully not if but when, a vaccine becomes rapidly available.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Irek Kusmierczyk Liberal Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

You had mentioned on social media, and I saw that you applauded, the City of Los Angeles' decision to make testing free of charge to anyone who wants it there. What do you see as the major obstacles for us to be able to have widespread testing capacity across Canada?

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

In about a 30-second answer, if possible, Doctor.

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

Yes, Mr. Chair.

There are two quick issues. First, I would say, is the availability of supplies, which we'll crack the back of in the fullness of time.

Second, I would say there is a divide sometimes between public health professionals and infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists about the value of testing large populations. I would err on the side of more data allowing us to answer questions better in the long term with a dataset that will allow future investigators to understand this pandemic better than most. I would also love to see Canada as the place with the most robust dataset.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Irek Kusmierczyk Liberal Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Thank you, Doctor.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

We'll now go to our Bloc intervenor.

Madame Vignola, did you wish to take this round or to cede your time to Mr. Barsalou-Duval?

12:25 p.m.

Bloc

Julie Vignola Bloc Beauport—Limoilou, QC

I would like to give my time to Mr. Barsalou-Duval, although I have many questions.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

So, the floor is yours, Mr. Barsalou-Duval. You have six minutes.

May 1st, 2020 / 12:25 p.m.

Bloc

Xavier Barsalou-Duval Bloc Pierre-Boucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Smith, thank you for being with us. Earlier, during your introduction, I heard you say that there is a need for a new social contract between Ottawa and the provinces on health care. Could you clarify what you were referring to when you said that?

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

I'm sorry, I didn't hear the translation.

12:25 p.m.

Bloc

Xavier Barsalou-Duval Bloc Pierre-Boucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères, QC

I don't know, I can't hear you talking right now. Is there a problem with the interpretation or is it a problem with the sound?

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

I'll ask Mr. Clerk if there's translation for that.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

Dr. Smith, we'll try to see if we can get this resolved.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Brad Redekopp Conservative Saskatoon West, SK

Dr. Smith, if you go up to the three dots on your iPad, there might be something called “interpretation” and then you can select “English”.

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

Ah, very good. Thank you, sir.

12:25 p.m.

Bloc

Xavier Barsalou-Duval Bloc Pierre-Boucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères, QC

Would you like me to ask the question again, since you haven't heard the interpretation?

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

That would be helpful, yes, thank you.

12:25 p.m.

Bloc

Xavier Barsalou-Duval Bloc Pierre-Boucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères, QC

I was saying that, in your introductory remarks, you mentioned that there would have to be a new social contract between Ottawa and the provinces with respect to health, and I would have liked you to be a little more specific, that is, to elaborate on what you meant by that exactly.

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

When I look at some of the areas that have fallen through the cracks, particularly seniors care and congregate-living environments, I don't really like to always start with money. I recognize that money is the start tool, but over the last number of years what was once a fifty-fity split between Ottawa and the provinces has, for probably a very good reason, shifted. There is a great debate about what the number is today. Some would say it's 30¢, some others would say it's 22¢. I would leave the debate to the experts.

I do think that we see the consequences of costs increasing beyond funding. In most health care systems in the world, we're seeing a 4% to 5% increase per year, and I'll just give you an example. At the University Health Network in the last year, we saw a 0.3% increase, meaning that every year we're looking for approximately 3% savings in the system, at the same time the population is growing and aging at 1.9%.

Unless we revisit how we're going to cost-share these programs, I believe we will continue to run the risk of their being further eroded. My great worry, of course, is that those with the least-loud voice—shelter dwellers, the homeless and seniors—will do least well in a system where resources are scarce.

12:30 p.m.

Bloc

Julie Vignola Bloc Beauport—Limoilou, QC

I'm going to have to take over, since my colleague lost his connection.

In the wake of SARS in 2003, what research has been done in Canada on COVID?

12:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

Following SARS, there was a very significant report, as you know, again done by Dr. Naylor and a group of very distinguished Canadians and scientists who reacted to it. I would say that COVID-type viruses have been researched for a long time. They're a complex virus defined by their shape. I think there has been a significant amount of virology research undertaken, but there's been such a rapid uptake of this illness and concern about being able to create vaccines that I think my colleagues in immunology would say that research funding in this domain has not kept pace with the risk.

Many of those who've blown the whistle in science have said quite loudly that the basic sciences, particularly the science of immunology and virology, have not kept pace with the superbugs that we're seeing develop in places like intensive care units and beyond. Their prediction that the next global pandemic was likely to be related to viruses that are difficult to control and, because of the nature of travel today, spread virulently and aggressively was sadly correct.

12:30 p.m.

Bloc

Julie Vignola Bloc Beauport—Limoilou, QC

You've anticipated my next question.

If memory serves me right, polio took 22 years of research at a time when we didn't have the technology we have today, and five trials that led to more or less pleasant effects.

Since SARS in 2003, scientists have been warning us that something was going to blow up in our faces, as you said. Nevertheless, there have been cutbacks in science around the world. Is Canada one of the countries that cut research drastically?

12:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, University Health Network

Dr. Kevin Smith

I have to confess that I haven't fully looked at the data from SARS from 17 years ago until the present. My impression is that while research funding has increased in dollar value every year, it's not unlike the hospital story, in that the costs of research have massively outstripped those increases.

The second piece is that we're a little bit of a victim of our success. If you look at the increasing volume of funding and research, but then cross-reference that with the number of Ph.D. scientists being prepared, while the dollar amount has gone up, the dollar per scientist—because we actually have invested well in the training of future scientists—has gone down. We haven't actually done a fabulous job in matching the output of young scientists with a clear career path and the operating grant dollars to be effective—