What it means if Alberta’s Jason Kenney bypasses Health Canada on COVID-19

EDMONTON—Jason Kenney could be emerging as the quick-acting leader Alberta needs in a time of crisis — or, alternatively, as an agent of chaos on the national stage with Canada in the grips of a pandemic.

It depends whom you ask.

This week, the Alberta premier criticized Health Canada and said his province wouldn’t wait for the federal government to approve seemingly credible tests, vaccines and medicines.

Kenney told CBC’s Vassy Kapelos on Monday he won’t “wait for Health Canada to play catch-up” with other “peer” jurisdictions, such as the European Union or the United States.

He said the federal health department has been dragging its feet on COVID-19 and that the country’s chief public health officer had previously parroted “talking points” from the Chinese government.

As a result, Kenney said, he’ll be circumventing Health Canada to look at unapproved tests, vaccines and medicines that have been approved in other countries.

The premier mentioned hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial medication touted by U.S. President Donald Trump despite as yet being unproven against COVID-19, which just began going through clinical trials in Alberta through the University of Calgary, supported by Alberta Health Services and the federal government.

“The direction I have given our officials is that if we see a highly credible regulator of medications in a peer jurisdiction like the European Union, Australia or the United States, that has approved a test, or a vaccine, or medication, we should pursue that,” Kenney told CBC.

Louis Hugo Francescutti, a public health professor at the University of Alberta, said that Kenney’s grievances with federal bureaucracy may have a basis but that now is not the time to bring them up.

Kenney could introduce “chaos” into the system, should his move pave the way for other jurisdictions in the country to seek their own tests and medicines, Francescutti said.

“If 10 premiers and three territorial leaders decide that they’re going to start setting their own standards for tests and vaccines and procedures, within their provinces and territories, then you can see how easily the public is going to get confused.”

Canada is also different than the United Kingdom or Australia. Francescutti said the country’s socio-economic, political, fiscal and public health needs are distinct and that decisions during the pandemic should be made through a Canadian lens.

There’s risk involved with bringing unapproved tests or drugs into Canada, he said.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “Now is not the best time to try and start introducing new ways to be doing things that could have quite severe consequences if you don’t do them properly — whether it’s a test that gives a false result, whether it’s a vaccine that has side effects, whether it’s a treatment that has side effects.”

“That’s why we have processes at a federal level that vet these.”

While Kenney has stressed that Health Canada is still credible, he has called into question some of the decisions it has made to date.

He said that it took too long for this country to shut its borders to international travel and that the chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam was giving bad advice at the beginning of the outbreak.

“This is the same Dr. Tam who is telling us that we shouldn’t close our borders to countries with high levels of infection … who in January was repeating talking points out of the (People’s Republic of China) about the no evidence of human-to-human transmission.”

Lori Williams, a policy studies professor from Mount Royal University, called the premier’s criticisms of Tam “inexplicable.”

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Williams said that, at the time, the worldwide scientific community was still trying to figure out whether human-to-human transmission was happening.

There are a lot of valid criticisms in respect to China’s transparency and Canada’s response to the pandemic, said Williams.

But at this point, the province and the federal government “should be working together,” she said.

“(Canadians) seem very much to like the fact that provinces and the federal government are working together to try to find a solution to something that’s pretty frightening for them all.”

Kenney could have used his platform to highlight some of the things Alberta has been a leader in, such as contact tracing and securing medical equipment, she said.

In response to questions submitted to the Kenney’s office by the Star, spokesperson Christine Myatt said that Alberta will look at approvals in other countries, but that “the ultimate decision on whether or not to use will be made by expert health officials — not by politicians.”

Myatt said Alberta had bought testing devices from Spartan Bioscience, a technology company in Ontario, before being “pleasantly surprised” by Health Canada’s approval of the testing method Monday.

Billed as a rapid-response testing device for COVID-19, Ontario this week put about one million on order after the handheld device, which analyzes DNA, received approval from the federal government. It helps give test results without having to send them off to sometimes faraway laboratories.

“The premier stated very clearly yesterday that he trusts Health Canada and its credibility as an agency in terms of approvals, but should not wait for them to play catchup with credible jurisdictions like the EU and the U.S.,” Myatt said.

Tam responded to some of Kenney’s criticisms, saying the federal government is “exploring every single avenue, including tests approved by other countries.”

“Health Canada does have existing regulations pertaining to urgent public health needs,” she said. “If certain treatments are approved in the United States or in European countries by their regulators, regulators that we know are of high standard, there are actual mechanisms to bring those solutions in safely.”

With files from The Canadian Press.

Kieran Leavitt

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