Canadian research officials return from Geneva with plan to tackle coronavirus

OTTAWA — Canada will aim $6.5 million at research on stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus, after co-ordinating with researchers around the world on tackling the outbreak.

Representatives of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) are returning from two days of talks with the international research community at a World Health Organization forum in Geneva, Switzerland.

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There, more than 300 scientists and researchers mapped out a plan to answer the questions that linger about the virus that has killed more than 1,000 people, and agreed on a set of research priorities.

Chinese researchers participated remotely, and their message was that research should be focused on keeping people alive.

"That's a good lens, because this is a rapid emergency response," said Charu Kaushic, scientific director of CIHR's Institute of Infection and Immunity, from her hotel room in Geneva. Kaushic is also a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

That could mean developing medical therapies or a vaccine in the long term. China, where the virus was first detected and where most of its victims live, is already testing dozens of potential drug treatments.

In the meantime though, researchers will be tailoring their studies to focus on infection prevention, quarantine protocols, personal protection measures, and other ways to keep the virus at bay. The WHO aims to study not only possible vaccines and therapies, but also the effectiveness of the public-health response and the social impact the disease has inflicted on the world.

"We need a vaccine against misinformation as well," Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief, said of the research goals Thursday.

The novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, has so far infected more than 45,000 people.

CIHR and several other Canadian research bodies have pulled together $6.5 million to hand out as research grants for science on the outbreak, and expect more money to be forthcoming as they continue negotiations with the federal government.

The group put out a call for research proposals Monday, and Kaushic said she will spend the next 24 hours refining applications so they align with the World Health Organization's priorities.

The granting agency has suggested researchers look at everything from medical interventions to the spread of fear and discrimination caused by the virus.

The applications for the Canadian funding will be evaluated as quickly as possible, with the hope that researchers will be able to get to work before the end of the month.

Rapid research responses like this one are not unusual Kaushic said, but the speed with which institutions put this one together is unprecedented.

Other health crises, like the latest Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have taught researchers how to co-ordinate quickly to better inform the response to a serious health crisis, said Greg Hallen with the Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre, one of the institutes helping to fund the Canadian research grants.

"What it really has reinforced is ... the importance of understanding the social dynamics of the disease outbreaks: how it transfers, and what messaging works in relation to ensuring communities and health agencies act in the best possible ways to prevent the worsening of the pandemic," said Hallen, who is co-ordinating the centre's response to COVID-19.

The centre's contribution to the research will be aimed at projects that partner with developing countries to draw on their expertise, and make sure they are equally prepared for a possible outbreak in their country.

An unusual requirement will be placed on all the winning grant recipients in the case of the coronavirus: they'll be expected to attend meetings with other global researchers to continue the co-ordinated approach to fighting the virus.

"This outbreak is a test of solidarity — political, financial and scientific," said WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement Wednesday.

"We need to come together to fight a common enemy that does not respect borders, ensure that we have the resources necessary to bring this outbreak to an end and bring our best science to the forefront to find shared answers to shared problems."

The international community will come together again in several months to see if there are any research gaps.

While the vast majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases are in China, the research community agreed the world must be prepared for the outbreak to overflow the country's borders.

"We don't know how this is going to play out, which is why we can't stop at this point," Kaushic said. "We have to continue with the worst-case scenario."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had an incorrect name for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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