Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Ottawa spends $575-million to shore up pandemic readiness

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Nathalie Martel, a lab technician, works with serum samples to be tested in an assay at the McGill University Health Centre, on April 21, 2022.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Federal officials have announced who will receive $575-million in funding over the next four years to bolster Canada’s ability to respond to a future public health crisis on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The funding, which includes 19 projects at 14 research institutions, marks Ottawa’s latest effort build and maintain a domestic capacity to respond to the next global health threat.

At a press event at Polytechnique Montreal on Monday, Valérie Laflamme, associate vice-president with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which oversaw the competition, said the funds will “play a foundational part in helping Canada develop a competitive bio-manufacturing and life-science sector.”

Scientists and analysts of Canada’s response to COVID-19 say a more sustained investment will be needed for years to come to avoid losing the expertise and practical knowledge that was gained during the pandemic.

The funding call, which attracted 103 proposals in total, involved a two-step assessment that looked at both strategic and scientific benefits.

Among the approved projects are several with a focus on the infrastructure and equipment required to develop and test new therapies and vaccines. Others will help facilitate clinical trials and train a cohort of scientists and entrepreneurs who can translate discoveries from the laboratory to the bedside on an emergency timeline.

Collectively, the projects offer a revealing glimpse at how ill-equipped Canada’s biomedical sector was to respond to COVID-19 in a co-ordinated way. One, now obvious, example is the lack of vaccine production capability at industrial scale. Another is the dependence of Canada’s health sector on global supply.

More apparent to researchers were the systemic hurdles and general lack of resources that prevented made-in-Canada therapies and vaccines from getting to clinical trials in a timely way.

“I think it was a shocker for all of us, actually, how poorly prepared we really were,” said John Bell, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

Dr. Bell is part of a project awarded nearly $79-million that will involve working with other labs to set up a cross-Canada bio-manufacturing co-operative. He said that a key goal of the project is to harmonize technologies and procedures so that an innovation created in one lab can be rapidly accelerated by others as part of a collective effort.

A report issued last year by the Public Policy Forum suggests that such a strategy is crucial for Canada, which has strong science but faces the limitations of a relatively small country. The report recommended that Canada optimize the value in its biomedical research in order to have something that it can offer in exchange for the resources it may lack during the next global health emergency.

The strategy also extends to developing skills among graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who can be trained to prepare for future pandemics years and help avoid a situation where Canada must depend entirely on imports to protect its population.

That demographic of researchers is the focus of a $19-million project co-led by Molly Shoichet, a professor and specialist in biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto. The effort, which has enlisted more than 20 industry partners, will seek to provide young scientists with experience that can fast track their ability to step into bio-manufacturing.

“We’re trying to work with our current ecosystem and give them a boost to be more successful,” Dr. Shoichet said.

Caroline Quach-Thanh, a pediatric microbiologist and professor at the University of Montreal who chaired the National Advisory Committee on Immunization during the pandemic, said a $15.5-million project she is leading will improve the community’s ability to run clinical trials for children and pregnant people – groups that are typically left out of the initial tests of a vaccine or drug.

She added that the project also aims to become the country’s main source of data from child and maternal disease surveillance by banking blood serum from routine tests that may provide insights into disease resistance and risk when new infections arise in the population.

At least one project among those named on Monday is less about the scientists and resources needed to address a health crisis than it is about the public on the receiving end.

Kelley Lee at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and colleagues have received a $13.5-million award to study challenges related to vaccine acceptance and access. The goal of the project is to build a better informed population.

Dr. Lee said that once COVID-19 vaccines became available, many researchers were stunned by the effect of misinformation and confusion spread through social media that inhibited vaccine uptake.

“I think people were surprised that ‘trust us’ didn’t work,” Dr. Lee said. “Coming out of the pandemic, we’re in a very different place.”

Money for the funding program, called the Canada Biomedical Research Fund and Biosciences Research Infrastructure Fund, was allocated in the 2021 federal budget.

David Naylor, a former University of Toronto president who has previously chaired reports on the federal government’s research support system, said that while the funding announcement consisted of “good people trying to do the right things,” the process the government set up to run the competition was cumbersome and took too long.

He added that the competition illustrated why Ottawa needs a new oversight body for research and innovation, which was announced in last month’s federal budget.

“With any luck, we’ll get smarter in future at this type of very important work,” he said.

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