Western teams recruited in effort to combat COVID-19

Two Western research teams have been named key players in an accelerated national effort to understand and control the spread of COVID-19.

Projects led by Anita Kothari and Maxwell Smith were named as part of a $26.7-million suite of grants announced today by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to fast-track a comprehensive Canadian response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The Canadawide grants invested in 47 research teams to study prevention, treatment, drug development, transmission pathways, co-ordination and logistics, ethics and public-health response as well as tackle misinformation, stigma and fear, Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains said in making the announcement.

More than 100,000 people in 79 countries are confirmed to have or to have had the virus, which has claimed more than 3,300 lives, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Canada has had 45 confirmed cases and no deaths.

“Canada’s researchers are some of the best in the world, and this funding will allow them to conduct groundbreaking research on a novel coronavirus,” Hajdu said. “Protecting the health and well-being of all Canadians is our top priority, and the research conducted thanks to this funding will contribute to mitigating the outbreak of COVID-19.”

Projects led by Western researchers Anita Kothari, above, and Maxwell Smith, below, were named as part of a $26.7-million suite of grants announced today by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to fast-track a comprehensive Canadian response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Kothari, cross-appointed between Health Sciences and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, was awarded a grant of $129,600 to develop a social-media toolkit that public health agencies can use during viral outbreaks.

In essence, the team is working to make facts more viral than the disease.

Kothari, Nursing professor Lorie Donelle and Health Information Science PhD student Lindsay Foisey are examining how social media posts from credible sources can improve public-health messaging, monitor misinformation and respond to questions and concerns raised by the public during an infectious outbreak.

With most adult Canadians online, social media has become an important conduit for both information and misinformation, they noted.

“How the message is conveyed – and by whom and in what context – is important,” Donelle said.

The group will be gathering public-health officials’ social-media interactions and messages from December 2019 to December 2020 – before and during the outbreak – to understand how online messages can meet the need for clear, credible and evidence-based facts and context.

“At the national level, there may be an opportunity to develop some co-ordinated guidelines about developing emergency resources,” Kothari said.

Public-health agencies, including the Public Health Agency of Canada, can then use those guidelines to stem the spread of other outbreaks or communicate about other important health issues such as vaccinations.

They will also compare current messaging in Canada to the WHO gold standard and to other best practices. In 2018, for example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control began a tongue-in-cheek campaign on how to survive a zombie apocaplyse (and other emergencies) – and it became so successful as a social media campaign that it grew into a disaster-preparedness blog, curriculum for educators and a graphic novel.

Smith, a Health Studies professor who serves as Co-director of Western’s Health Ethics, Law, & Policy (HELP) Lab, and his team were awarded a grant of $283,656 to propose ethical pathways to expedite research and development of drug treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19.

Typically, bringing a drug treatment or vaccine through the research and regulatory process – from lab to reviews to clinical trials and then to use in humans – can take 15-20 years, he explained. During the Ebola virus outbreak of 2013-16, though, that process took a matter of months.

Smith, who has an ongoing role as part of the ethics advisory team to WHO, will examine what ethical considerations worked well, and didn’t work well, during the response to the Ebola crisis, and apply that to creating an ethical rapid response in cases of COVID-19.

Those ethical questions include how to allocate limited R&D money, ensuring patients’ informed consent and equitable access to pharmaceuticals.

They also include how best to mobilize R&D and commercialization efforts among different regulators, agencies and pharmaceutical industries across the globe.

“They all have different views about how these research trials are designed, how they should be conducted, who should benefit first,” Smith said.

Co-ordinating those efforts, while navigating among different interests and ethical viewpoints, is a massive task, but Smith believes there is an international will to work together on solutions.

“We’re all in this together. The more people worry that everyone is affected, or could be affected, the more we will see solidarity, to collaborate instead of to compete.”

Funding for this research comes through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and Genome Canada (GC).

“Science is at the heart of innovation and a top priority to keep Canadians safe and healthy,” Bains said. “Today’s investment will go a long way to help support life-saving research, as we collaborate with international partners to manage the coronavirus outbreak.”