Dr. Robert Van Exan, former director of health and science policy at Canadian pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, said tracking with barcodes in Canada “should have been written in the pandemic plan.”There was a plan to make these barcodes central to Canada’s public-health system, and there was a time when Canada was ahead in digitizing its health system “by a decade,” Dr. Van Exan said. Canada’s 1998 vaccine strategy first proposed barcoding vaccines to promote efficiency and accuracy. The 2003 SARS epidemic, and the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada, hastened that work.In normal times, Canada administers millions of vaccines a year for diseases such as mumps and influenza. Provinces slowly adopted digitized immunization records in the early 2000s, but continued entering all the data manually: Audits of some provincial systems found fully 15 per cent of immunization records were incomplete, nearly a quarter had inaccurate information, and crucial data was missing from one in five adverse-reaction reports.In 2007, Ottawa tapped an advisory group made up of industry experts, including Dr. Van Exan, to plan the implementation of these barcodes. The total cost, the advisory group found, would have then been around $265-million, but they projected savings of $1-billion in the decades to come. They handed Ottawa a plan to start barcoding vaccines in warehouses, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies by 2014.This barcoding capability was an integral part of a broader digital infrastructure project known as the Vaccine Identification Database System (VIDS). Ottawa set up VIDS as a proof of concept for a single, national digitized public-health system to track infectious disease outbreaks and vaccination campaigns.Story continues below advertisementOttawa contracted IBM Canada to build a permanent vaccination version of VIDS, called Panorama. That’s where things “fell off the wagon,” Dr. Van Exan said. “IBM built a system that can’t read barcodes.”Beset by delays and cost increases, some provinces dropped the project. Even some provinces that stuck with Panorama have still not installed crucial components of the system. None of the provinces’ systems work with one another.“This is one of the big flaws in the whole damn system,” Dr. Van Exan said.