Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Panel, a key group of independent experts in the province’s response to the ongoing pandemic, confirmed Friday that it will disband early next month after more than two years.
In a statement posted on its website, the board says it was informed by Public Health Ontario (PHO) at an Aug. 18 meeting that it and all of its task forces would be disbanded as of Sept. 6.
“We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve Ontario beginning in July 2020,” the statement said. “Many of us will remember our work for the Science Table as some of the most important work we’ve ever had the opportunity to do.”
The group said its work reflected the dedication of hundreds of volunteer scientists, doctors and administrators. He added that the key principles that will help Ontario manage the ongoing risks of COVID-19 are that science matters, equity matters, transparency is critical, independence must be perceived and delivered, and timeliness and relevance are essential.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues and it is contributing to the growing number of health system crises in Ontario,” the statement continued.
The Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto oversaw the group of independent scientists until April 4, when the PHO announced it would host the expert group on a permanent basis.
At the time, the PHO said the group would develop new terms of reference to become “sustainable over time” and to be able to scale up if necessary in the event of future public health emergencies.
PHO exploring new advisory group
A statement on Friday from the PHO suggested it was looking at forming a new group, saying it had been engaged in discussions with representatives of the scientific panel in recent weeks on new terms of reference.
“The new terms of reference establish a mandate that reflects a long-term, sustainable approach and ensures the continued provision of reliable and independent scientific and technical public health advice to the province on COVID-19 and future public health emergencies,” he wrote.
“The membership will continue to be composed of independent experts.”
The scientific board’s advice and guidance has sometimes conflicted with government action during the pandemic.
A particularly poignant moment came in February 2021, as the government prepared to ease public health restrictions during a temporary lull in new cases, just as worrisome variants began to spread in the province.
During a press conference to present its latest model, the panel’s co-chair, Adalsteinn Brown, was asked by a reporter if the panel of experts was essentially “predicting disaster.” Brown answered in the affirmative.
You can see the full exchange here:
Brown is the dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and was involved in presentations during some of the most terrifying months of the pandemic. In August, Brown left the band to focus on his role at the University of Toronto.
The government went ahead with its plan and what followed was the third wave, which at its peak, saw around 900 people with COVID-19 admitted to ICUs and resulted in public health orders being reinstated a few weeks later.
Hopes for new group led by ‘genuine scientific independence’
At its peak, the panel’s core members included more than 40 health professionals and scientists with a wide range of expertise.
Dr. Peter Jüni, the table’s outspoken former science director and its most public representative throughout the pandemic, left the role in April to take a job at Oxford University in the UK.
He was replaced by Dr. Fahad Razak, an internist at St. Michael in Toronto and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
In his statement on Friday, Razak said he is “forever grateful” to those who volunteered their time to the table’s mission, “often working late into the night and under severe time pressures”.
“I hope the scientific advice we gave to the public and decision makers helped reduce suffering,” he said.
Razak added that he hopes any future advisory group will be guided by the principles of “true scientific independence” and transparency, a focus on equity and a commitment to protecting individuals and communities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.