“We had dress rehearsals with MERS, SARS and H1N1. We’ve been there before,” says a researcher. “What are we going to learn this time in a way that really sticks?”
We don’t yet know how to prevent, treat, and treat all of the ramifications of COVID-19, but many academic researchers are trying. Canadian academics are working on dozens of research projects on the virus, with more to follow as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research just released more funding.
We highlight three fascinating projects from across the country that will soon give us a better understanding of the current pandemic.
Volker Gerdts: a vaccine
Volker Gerdts, director and CEO of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Center (VIDO-InterVac) laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan knew he wanted to make a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 ( the virus that causes COVID-19) when he first heard about the virus in early January. “We immediately realized that this could be a significant disease that the world might have to deal with,” he says. “We made the decision to start a vaccine project immediately, so as not to waste time.”
Dr. Gerdts, who is also a professor of veterinary medicine at the U of S, called the Public Health Agency of Canada and received clearance to work on the virus as soon as its genome was sequenced. VIDO-InterVac is one of the largest advanced containment level 3 facilities in the world, with 170 employees who have already created eight vaccines against animal and human diseases – some of which are coronaviruses – and two of which will soon be subject of human trials.
Already, Dr. Gerdts and his team — which includes VIDO-InterVac research scientist and adjunct veterinary professor Darryl Falzarano, who is a principal investigator on the $1 million multicenter grant the lab received from CIHR in February — have landed. on an effective genetic pathway and a test vaccine. They are currently testing it on a group of ferrets.
There are about 40 teams around the world working on COVID-19 vaccines, some already in early human trials, but Dr Gerdts says a safe, mass-produced vaccine is still a year away. His own team just needs continued funding and avoiding illness and burnout to achieve their goal. “I’m very optimistic,” he says.
Jeanna Parsons Leigh: information and knowledge transfer
“It’s data overload right now,” says sociologist Jeanna Parsons Leigh, an assistant professor in the faculty of health at Dalhousie University. “You look at Twitter, you’re anxious with so many stories. You don’t know what’s true, what’s not.
Dr. Parsons Leigh examines how Canadians obtain information and how it influences their actions in a two-year, $400,000 study. She is one of 15 researchers to receive COVID-19 funding from the New Frontiers in Research Fund through the Canadian Research Coordinating Committee. “If you can understand where they’re getting their information from, if you can understand the sources of misinformation, you can develop and target interventions to close that gap,” she says.
Working with researchers from Dalhousie and the University of Calgary, where she is co-appointed – including Kirsten Fiest, Assistant Professor of Community Health Sciences – Dr. Parsons Leigh will soon begin facilitating online focus groups to understand sources of information for different demographic groups. “We have more questions than answers right now, so this is an exploratory study,” she says. Dr Parsons Leigh can supplement his data with telephone interviews for those who do not wish to interact digitally, such as the elderly.
Next, the team will conduct a national survey, which will inform a knowledge transfer campaign created with partners, including Knowledge Translation Canada.
Dr Parsons Leigh recently discovered that healthcare professionals are getting mixed messages about how to protect themselves against the virus, so she will also be collecting data on their information pathways. “We try to integrate these other smaller projects. We want to generate more useful data,” she says.
Like many people working with COVID-19, the goal is both to get this virus under control and to look to the future. “Let’s make sure we’re ready for the next pandemic,” she says.
Ronald Labonté: the great portrait of health
Trade agreements, agricultural policy, social protection systems, health rules, migration policies and many other factors affect how pandemics are handled nationally and globally. “You have to work across different sectors to make sure animal health and human health policies and programs work in sync, or you’re going to have a problem,” says Ronald Labonté, a professor at the School of Life Sciences. health from the University of Ottawa. professor of epidemiology and public health.
This is the idea of One Health, which says that when stakeholders from multiple sectors work together, it can improve health outcomes. To further this research perspective in Canada, Dr. Labonté helped form the Global One Health Network (Global 1HN) last fall.
Dr. Labonté and network members from the University of Montreal, University of Calgary and York University are embarking on a large four-year project taking four perspectives on the management of COVID-19: surveillance, intervention, government regulation and equity. “We’re trying to see how well our global government systems are responding,” he says. They will incorporate data from the Public Health Agency of Canada and academics from Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and Rwanda, where the researchers already have existing partners.
Dr. Labonté’s own research will focus on how governments and social programs protect vulnerable people. “There are huge swaths of groups that are in marginalized situations that are going to be affected by this,” he says. “We are very concerned about this disease in Canada, but can you imagine what it is like in a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border?
The project seeks to understand what works and what doesn’t, and to propose a way forward for the next pandemic. “We had dress rehearsals with MERS, SARS and H1N1. We’ve been there before,” says Dr. Labonté. “What are we going to learn this time in a way that actually sticks with us?”