Ontario’s independent volunteer science table, an invaluable source of information and direction throughout the pandemic, has been told it will be dissolved.

It would be an abrupt and shocking move from Public Health Ontario, which had agreed to take the table of more than 40 scientists from its previous home at the University of Toronto, and negotiated terms of reference with then-co-chair Steini Brown over the summer.

The Ministry of Health denies the table will be shut down, saying “the work of the (science advisory table) would continue,” and when pressed, “the SAT is not being shut down.”

But according to a summary circulated among the science table and obtained by the Star, new PHO head Michael Sherar told the table on Aug. 18 that he would shut it down Sept. 6. The science table’s peerless pandemic dashboard would be eliminated, its access to data gone, its projects stranded. In its place, PHO would establish a hand-picked 15-person advisory group with no formal scientific director, limited independence from PHO or the chief medical officer of health — no ability to unilaterally choose topics of study, for instance — and far less clinical expertise.

Public Health Ontario is directly responsible for negotiations and did not deny the table was being shut down; it merely said negotiations were ongoing to “establish a mandate that reflects a long-term, sustainable approach,” and that “membership will continue to be comprised of independent experts.”

Conversations with both PHO and table sources confirmed the contents of the letter, which painstakingly charts the past month’s negotiations.

Even if dissolution were a negotiating tactic, there does not seem to be a path here.

On Aug. 2, PHO reneged on the previously negotiated terms, and on Aug. 11 offered new parameters that strictly limited both independence and transparency. They gave the table a Sept. 6 deadline to accept the new, restrictive terms, and a week later Sherar cut to the chase.

It is understood that the removal of independence would be a deal-breaker for the table, and everything is pointing toward an end. When told of the ministry’s denial that they were being shut down, one science table member simply wrote back, “B.S.” No further negotiations are currently scheduled.

There were surely ways to take the strong contributions of this group and use them to serve the public as the pandemic evolves. This scenario, however, seems closer to arson.

The table’s working group on emerging COVID drugs, led by Dr. Menaka Pai and Dr. Andrew Morris, had become the nation’s leading workforce on a difficult, fast-moving, highly technical topic; conversations with doctors from around the province have long confirmed their briefs on emerging drugs became a vital resource that wasn’t being duplicated anywhere else in Canada. With periodic drug shortages in a rapidly emerging field it became a valuable resource, and surely saved lives.

Beyond that, there were working groups on mental health, on behavioural science as it relates to vaccine uptake, on long-term care, and groups were being developed on equity — the table has been critical in pushing numerical arguments for more equitable vaccination policies, which the province has often resisted — and pediatrics, involving some of the province’s more distinguished scientists, bringing disparate institutions together. And they are volunteers, so the cost can’t be the problem.

It is unclear who is actually driving this decision. Sherar has only run PHO since mid-July, and this would seem like an unusually strident move for a new CEO; more, this appears to be a planned strategy, since PHO asked for the code to the table’s dashboard earlier this summer, and has since created its own version without the table’s knowledge. Sources say Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore was often frustrated with former science table scientific director Dr. Peter Jüni and his ubiquitous media presence, but Jüni has departed for a prestigious job at England’s Oxford University. The province, which was resistant to public health measures and often seemed not to understand the basic dynamics of the pandemic, often considered the table an opposition force, and now has a strong electoral mandate.

“The health-care system and the population needs to recover from the acute phase of the pandemic, and the science table would have been in a position to point out vulnerabilities in the system and weaknesses in a potential recovery plan,” said Jüni, reached in the United Kingdom. “This would have been tremendously helpful, but would have put the government in an uncomfortable position. If you just want to do your thing, or pretend everything is hunky-dory as it currently is, you need to eliminate the science table.”

The situation is not hunky-dory, of course, even if vaccination and postinfection immunity have reduced COVID’s impact enough that it has become, for the moment, merely one part of a bigger crisis. As TVO’s John McGrath smartly pointed out, the government’s new long-term care patient transfer policy is an acknowledgment of crisis, at the expense of some of Ontario’s most vulnerable. The hospital system has been in severe crisis all summer; fall and winter, with the burden of COVID and other respiratory viruses layered on top of a tottering health system, will be more difficult still.

Whatever the reasoning here, the table has been an admittedly imperfect vessel that filled a gaping scientific and public health void in this province over the past two pandemic years, during which it often pushed the government of Ontario to enact public health measures and consider equity in its approach to the pandemic. It was more responsive than government — when Omicron first appeared, Jüni was on the phone to his scientific contacts in South Africa with first-hand knowledge of the new variant — and worked harder to communicate actual information though briefings, when allowed, and through the media.

The table faltered at times: the modelling, so accurate in the third wave, wavered in the fall of 2021 and further into Omicron, where the range of uncertainties only grew and it failed to accurately gauge the complex array of vaccination, previous infection, hospitalizations and more.

But even on a volunteer basis, the table remained the only source of independent, rigorous analysis Ontario had during the pandemic, and the periodic attacks from government and government-sympathetic media was telling.

In a way, this is familiar territory: PHO has been bleeding talented scientists for at least a decade. During the pandemic, chief science officer Dr. Natasha Crowcroft left for the World Health Organization, chief microbiologist Dr. Vanessa Allen left to return to practice, and the chief of communicable diseases and emergency preparedness, Dr. Shelley Deeks, left to work in public health in Nova Scotia after she revealed the province had ignored its scientific advice regarding COVID restriction thresholds.

Beyond that, the province allowed its vaccine task force to expire in August 2021, and a group was formed at PHO to replace it; the latter group’s effect on vaccination policy in Ontario, where booster uptake has been lousy and pediatric vaccination has barely been encouraged, has been difficult to discern.

So what’s happening here seems counterproductive, even if you acknowledge that the science table and the pandemic have both evolved, and every government craves as much control as it can get. If Public Health Ontario was looking to rebuild after years of driving away scientific talent, this seems a poor beginning for Sherar. If Moore wanted to consolidate power there is a better, more productive way to do this.

Many people will shrug and move on, which is what they have been told to do.

But if the table is being shut down, what will result is likely a further reduction in trust for public health, a further reduction in transparency, and an elimination of independent, reasoned analysis in Ontario.

Moore may be torching his relationship with a great many prominent scientists, and the government will own whatever happens over the winter. In the end, the science table was simply a group of some of the smartest people in Ontario that tried to counter the biggest crisis in the province’s history on their own time and dime, and did what others couldn’t or wouldn’t do. And now it’s likely done.

Correction — 11:10 p.m. Aug. 25, 2022: This article was edited to correct the name of Public Health Ontario head Michael Sherar, which was previously misspelled.

Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur