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This business claims it built a better COVID-19 forecasting model but can't get government to bite – CBC.ca

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As COVID-19 continues to surge across the country, a Canadian company says it’s created software to better predict how the virus will spread and help slow the second wave, but it can’t break through bureaucracy to show health officials how it can help.

“Everybody’s running around reacting so much, they won’t even sit down and take a serious look at the innovation we’ve built,” said Paul Minshull, CEO of Scarsin Corporation.

Scarsin, based in Markham, Ont., north of Toronto, specializes in creating forecasts for the pharmaceutical industry to predict how different treatments affect patient outcomes in cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases. Its clients include multinational drug makers Bayer, Eli Lilly, Gilead, Jansen, and Pfizer.

“We are one of the top firms in the world at doing this kind of work,” said Minshull. “The global 500 companies that hire us all focus on the exact things that Canada needs in the pandemic today.”

So last spring, when the federal government put out the call for industry to pivot to fighting COVID-19, harnessing the “innovative power of Canadian researchers and businesses,” Scarsin dropped everything to help fight the pandemic.

It assigned a third of its staff, including a PhD who had previous experience modeling a pandemic — the H1N swine flu of 2009 — to come up with a better forecasting model for COVID-19.

Forecast models, based on demographics, testing numbers, positivity rates and more can help leaders choose measures to contain the virus. Modelling can also help predict when hospitals could be overwhelmed with patients.

Scarsin said its software can do localized forecasts for the 92 health regions across the country and consolidate them to create a national model.

A powerful platform

Four experts who reviewed the Scarsin platform for CBC News said they haven’t seen any similar models in Canada.

The company’s COVID-19 program tracks 70 possible parameters, which can be adjusted daily. Neither Ontario nor Ottawa has published a model with a similar design or number of inputs.

The parameters include testing rates, locations people were infected, travel between communities, mask use, household demographics, interventions and more.

It can also forecast how many people will experience mild illness or need hospitalization and separate the results by four different age groups.

It even uses location data released by Apple, Facebook and Googleto assess if people are reducing social interactions in line with public health directives.

“It looks like a pretty powerful approach,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, “[Scarsin has] a lot of flexibility, adaptability there.”

Epidemiologist Colin Furness with the University of Toronto says Scarin’s forecasting system ‘looks like a pretty powerful approach’ to help manage the pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

Scarsin said a key difference between its model and those released by governments is that the company’s system can compare different ways to curb the spread of the virus.

For example, Scarsin said its forecasting model can provide predictions for issues such as how a temporary school closure might affect social interactions and the infection rate compared to the closure of fitness facilities or indoor dining.

The interventions one region may take compared to another to control COVID-19 would depend on the unique demographics of its population and characteristics of its businesses, the company said.

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, said the ability of Scarsin’s forecasts to be responsive in comparing interventions could help public health leaders make better decisions to better control COVID-19.

“That could have a meaningful impact on the path of the pandemic,” said Deonandan.

Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease epidemiologist and mathematical modeler with the University of Toronto, agrees, also suggesting the customizable localized data would be particularly useful.

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist with the University of Ottawa, says forecasts compare different ways to reduce viral spread could help health officials make better decisions to control COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

“I’ve heard from local public health units, you know, there’s this desire to be able to have local level models, and there’s just not the capacity at this point for that.”

She sees it as a ready-to-use solution and would like to see Ontario consider giving Scarsin’s system to health regions across the province.

Little government interest

So far, though, Scarsin has struggled to get health officials to look at its model, starting with Ottawa and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

A manager with PHAC told Scarsin in an email  he would try to get the software checked out by his department “because we have a use for it and don’t have the capacity to do it internally,” but nothing came of the exchange.

Scarsin also applied to a federal government program looking for prototypes to “help combat current and future outbreaks of the novel coronavirus“.

Officials with that program rejected Scarsin’s application, saying its model would be too hard to build and test and potentially too expensive for government departments to license and operate.

It took five months for that rejection to come through.

By then, Scarsin had already built and paid for the system on its own.

Passed over by the province

In May an employee at the Ontario Ministry of Health said in an email to Scarsin that the company’s program “is a great solution.”

It was told to submit the idea to the Ontario Together Fund, a $50 million program to help companies advance ideas or products to battle COVID-19.

Five months later Scarsin had still not received a decision about the application or any feedback.

The company was told the fund was “currently seeking decisions on over 6,000 proposals” that were put forward to the government.

“The process runs like the normal bureaucracy,” said Minshull. “[It’s as though] I’m trying to replace a sidewalk in a subdivision.”

One region is using the software

Scarsin also contacted more than a dozen Ontario health regions and cities, including Toronto, Peel and York.

Only York Region expressed interest, and it began using the Scarsin model in September.

This region north of Toronto includes Markham, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and six other cities with a combined population of about 1.2 million.

Katarina Garpenfeldt, an official with Ontario’s York Region says Scarsin’s forecasting system will help the community manage the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

“I haven’t come across anything that has the capacity that Scarsin had shown us,” said Katarina Garpenfeldt, the supervisor of advanced planning in the region’s Health Emergency Operation Centre

She said the model helps predict how the pandemic might affect the community and allows health officials to “play with the variables” to see how different interventions could pan out.

“What does it mean if 25 per cent of the students opt in for remote learning, and then all of a sudden that number increases to 40 per cent of students opting in for remote learning? How does that impact the anticipated spread of the disease or the case count?”

A proven prediction

The Ontario government has taken heavy criticism for ignoring the advice of public health experts and relaxing restrictions on businesses to help the economy as infections had been rising for weeks.

Last Friday, record-breaking case counts forced Ontario to abruptly revise its new colour-coded plan for COVID-19 restrictions.

However, ​Scarsin’s modelling found that even Ontario’s most “stringent measures” — the control red zones — will not be enough to slow the spread of the virus and prevent lockdowns.

A graph from Scarsin’s forecast six weeks ago, predicting Ontario would hit more than 1500 daily cases of COVID-19 in November. (Scarsin Corporation Graph)

One of Scarsin’s previous forecasts for Ontario proved to be prescient.

On Oct. 2, in a blog post called “Wave 2 will be late, long and local in Ontario,” the company forecasted that Ontario would have a minimum of 1,540 new cases per day by Remembrance Day.

Ontario hit 1,575 cases on Nov 12.

The COVID-19 Modelling Collaborative, a joint effort of scientists and physicians from the University of Toronto, University Health Network and Sunnybrook Hospital — which informs the group of experts the Ontario government uses to implement health policy — predicted the second wave would peak at 1,000 new cases per day in mid to late October.

Good forecasting saves lives

“I think our lives do depend upon good forecasting,” said Chris Bauch, a professor of applied mathematics at Ontario’s University of Waterloo with a specialty in building complex models about infectious disease transmission.

“The whole idea of flattening the curve was based on mathematical models, and that undoubtedly saved many thousands of lives.”

Bauch, who has built two COVID-19 models himself, said he was surprised how quickly Scarsin developed their system and that it was “a pretty amazing tool.”

Throughout the pandemic, the importance of data and forecasting in fighting infectious disease has become increasingly apparent.

Despite that, experts say there’s not an overarching forecasting strategy.

Instead, Tuite said, forecasting tends to be done by small groups of experts who work together on specific problems, or who may be recruited by governments as advisors as has been the case durIng COVID-19.

“I think people may imagine that each province or each health region, or, you know, the country has this master model that’s reading all of the data that’s being generated and producing forecasts every day that are getting updated,” explained Tuite, “but there isn’t, or there hasn’t been to date, a really unified approach to modelling.”

Canada could lose out

Scarsin said it has spent $1.6 million on its COVID-19 model.

The company offered to deploy the system for the federal government across Canada for less than $2 million.

“We priced that project at a level that I can tell you, we would not have made any money on it,” said Minshull.

Now, Scarsin has started pursuing sales in the U.S. and with private companies to recover its investment.

But it may yet have another option at home.

There’s now a new $10 million federal grant program for researchers to develop forecasting tools.

The federal government set it up because – according to the government website – the pandemic has made clear “that Canada would benefit from additional skilled modelling experts.”

Scarsin may apply.

“Some would say that’s maybe not the smartest decision as a CEO,” said Minshull. “But I can’t help but do it.”

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First COVID-19 vaccine could be delivered to distribution points as early as end of December, Fortin says – CBC.ca

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Federal officials today explained how they plan to roll out millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses in the coming weeks as Ottawa launches its mass inoculation campaign.

The initial supply of the doses will be limited — just three million Canadians are expected to get a shot in the first three months of 2021. Millions more doses are expected to arrive as the supply chain stabilizes.

One of the principal challenges facing the immunization effort is the distribution of vaccines that must be kept at very low temperatures – well below those that a standard commercial refrigerator can offer.

The Pfizer product, which is expected to get the green light from Health Canada as early as this month, needs to be kept at approximately -80 degrees Celsius to remain stable. The Moderna product, another vaccine that uses groundbreaking messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, must be kept at -20 degrees Celsius.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, a former NATO commander in Iraq, is leading vaccination logistics and operations at a new national operations centre in the Public Health Agency of Canada. While the country is facing unprecedented “logistical complexities,” he said, the military and its partners will be ready to deploy vaccines as soon as they are approved in Canada.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the commander of Canada’s military pandemic response. (Radio Canada)

He said the national operations centre isn’t waiting for Health Canada’s sign-off to begin preparations. The Pfizer product will be delivered by that company directly to provincial and territorial distribution points as early as the end of the month.

The federal government already has secured the cold storage required for this product. All of the provinces have indicated where the Pfizer-specific fridges should be placed and 14 distribution points nationwide will be ready to receive the vaccine starting on Dec. 14, Fortin said.

Eventually, there will be 205 “points of issue” locations across the country where health care professionals can administer the vaccine, the general said. It will be up to the provinces and territories to specify where and when individual Canadians will be inoculated.

Fortin said at least one “dry run” has been executed so far, with more planned in the days ahead, to ensure things run smoothly once this vaccine hits our shores from manufacturing hubs in the U.S. and abroad. These practice runs will ensure officials are comfortable with what Fortin called the “very unique requirements” of this vaccine.

Fortin said he’s actively planning for multiple worst-case scenarios, such as bad weather, cyber attacks and fires at distribution hubs.

“We’re very much executing a whole-of-nation approach. The size and scope and scale of this problem is unprecedented and there’s a number of factors at play,” he said. “I like the idea of being ready before the Christmas timeframe, so we are certain to be ready when it comes in January.”

The general said his team is in daily contact with Pfizer and the company is “comfortable” with the plan that Canada has crafted. Pfizer has said it won’t ship product to a country that isn’t ready to receive a vaccine that is so temperature-sensitive.

Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada, said Thursday that the regulatory review of Pfizer’s vaccine is “progressing really well” and her department has the “majority of information” it needs from the company to certify that it’s safe and effective.

In an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics, Sharma said the final approval could come in the next 7 to 10 days. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is set to meet on Dec. 10 to decide on an emergency use authorization (EUA) for that shot and Sharma said Canada is following a similar timeline.

Canada has placed orders with Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech for 20 million doses of the two-dose vaccine, with options for millions more in the months to follow.

The company has reported its vaccine was 95 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19 among clinical trial participants who had no evidence of prior infection.

Preparing for the worst

The Moderna vaccine, which is expected to secure regulatory approvals after the Pfizer product, will be imported into Canada by the federal government, largely through private shipping companies. Ottawa will in turn divide up the product for the provinces and territories.

The government is now finalizing “end mile” contracts with logistics firms — the companies that will transport the Moderna vaccines to centres where Canadians can go for a shot.

On Monday, the Massachusetts-based company applied to the FDA for its EUA for the American marketplace.

Data from the company’s final clinical trial are encouraging, demonstrating the vaccine is 94.1 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19 and 100 per cent effective at preventing severe cases of the disease.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said the federal government is now refining who is best suited to get an early dose of a vaccine — early guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) suggests seniors in long-term care homes and frontline health care workers will be among the first to get a shot.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is pushing the federal government for more details on its vaccine rollout plan. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and his party’s health critic Michelle Rempel Garner held a news conference this morning to discuss an opposition day motion that will call on the government to release its plan by Dec. 16.

O’Toole accused the government of failing to provide Canadians with a plan and a timeframe for vaccine distribution.

“Without a concrete timeline for vaccines, businesses won’t have the confidence to reinvest in their operations and rehire Canadians who have been laid off during the pandemic,” he said.

“Without a reliable timeline, or details, provinces have the impossible task of establishing complex supply chains with no lead time.”

The motion calls for a status update on:

  • How each type of vaccine will be safely delivered, stored and distributed to Canadians.
  • The date on which each vaccine type will be first deployed in Canada and the rate of vaccinations anticipated by month.
  • Any planned federal guidance with respect to the deployment of the vaccine by priority group, such as front-line health workers and seniors.
  • The plan to distribute the vaccine to Indigenous communities, members of the Canadian Armed Forces and veterans.

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Ontario reports 1,824 new COVID-19 cases including record high in Peel – CityNews Toronto

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Ontario is reporting 1,824 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, an increase from 1,723 cases the day before.

Fourteen new deaths were also reported. This brings the provincial death toll to 3,712.

Due to a data processing error, Thursday’s provincial case count includes 127 cases from the Middlesex-London Health Unit that were reported over the previous three days, the government said.

Peel Region set a new record with 592 new cases reported. The City of Toronto reported 396 new cases, followed by York Region with 187.

The province says it has conducted 52,873 tests since the last daily report.

In total, 666 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 195 in intensive care.

The province also says 107 people are on ventilators in hospitals.

The latest figures bring the total of COVID-19 cases in Ontario to 121,746 and 103,239 cases resolved.

In the province’s long-term care homes, 707 residents currently have COVID-19 and eleven new deaths have been reported today.

The province says 116 of its 626 long-term care homes are experiencing an outbreak.

The province also reported 122 new COVID-19 cases related to schools, including at least 94 among students.

Those bring the number of schools with a reported case to 755 out of Ontario’s 4,828 publicly funded schools.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about coronavirus

 

RELATED: Coronavirus FAQs

With files from the Canadian Press

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TD posts big Q4 beat as provisions sink, wholesale profit triples – BNN

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Toronto-Dominion Bank closed out earnings season for Canada’s Big Six lenders on Thursday on the same note as its rivals: a big profit beat driven in part by spectacular growth in capital markets and far less cash set aside for loans that could go bad.

TD’s net income for the three months ending Oct. 31 totalled $5.1 billion, compared to $2.9 billion a year earlier, amid a $2.3-billion gain stemming from the stake it held in TD Ameritrade prior to the brokerage’s takeover by The Charles Schwab Corp.

On an adjusted basis, TD earned $1.60 per share in the fiscal fourth quarter. Analysts were expecting $1.27 in adjusted profit.

The bank booked $917 million in provisions for credit loss in the quarter, compared to $2.2 billion in the previous quarter and $3.2 billion in the fiscal second quarter.

“TD delivered solid results in the fourth quarter, capping off a year that demonstrated the strength of our business model and balance sheet, and the resilience of our people throughout the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic,” said TD CEO Bharat Masrani in a release.

“While 2020 was not the year we expected it to be, we learned from the experience and demonstrated the speed and agility of our organization,” he added. “We will continue to adapt to the current environment to deliver for all of our stakeholders and support an inclusive and sustainable recovery.”

TD’s capital markets operations saw profit more than triple from a year earlier as net income reached $486 million in the final quarter of 2020.  The bank attributed the growth to higher revenue from trading activities as well as a jump in debt underwriting fees. The profit growth for the division stands in stark contrast to its condition less than two years ago when it posted a surprise loss in the first quarter of 2019.

The bank’s bread-and-butter retail operations in Canada were a pillar of strength in the fiscal fourth quarter as profit rose three per cent year-over-year to $1.8 billion.

TD’s operations south of the border struggled in the quarter, as profit from U.S. retail banking slid 41 per cent year-over-year to US$403 million. The decline came amid an uptick in provisions for credit losses and as income from fees and lending margins came under pressure.

Programming note: Don’t miss BNN Bloomberg’s conversation with TD CEO Bharat Masrani Friday, Dec. 4 at 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT.

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