Network rallies research to combat pandemic

Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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It’s the kind of grand experiment required to meet a challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic – and one organizers hope resonates long after this crisis has faded.

The Government of Canada has now launched CanCOVID, a new network linking Canadian health-care professionals, university researchers and policy-makers with the goal of unifying Canadian efforts against COVID-19.

CanCOVID looks to make it easier for researchers working on different angles of the same problem to find each other, share what they know, vet research results and anticipate challenges. It also looks to make that knowledge more widely available to government agencies, policy-makers and external partners.

“Oftentimes, a crisis forces you to try new things,” said Sarah Gallagher, a Western Physics and Astronomy professor and Canadian Space Agency Science Advisor. “Right now, this is a grand experiment. But I am optimistic. We have a lot of engagement early on; everyone is swimming in the same direction.

“People want to go back to their normal lives – and this network hopes to lead us there as safely and as soon as possible.”

Two Western researchers are among the four-person steering team appointed by Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, to lead the implementation of the CanCOVID platform – Gallagher and Computer Science professor Mark Daley join Dr. Cara Tannenbaum, Health Canada Science Advisor, and Alex Mihailidis, Associate Vice-President International Partnerships at the University of Toronto.

“Our job is to make this effort effective and efficient,” Gallagher said. “We want to make sure researchers are talking to each other, sharing best practices, helping each other figure things out. We want to be going down one path – together.”

Urgency surrounding the pandemic has challenged researchers to accelerate the pace of science.

“Researchers in Canada across all disciplines want to do everything they can to contribute at this time,” said Sarah Prichard, Active Vice-President (Research) at Western. “There is a huge desire to help, to move beyond their own walls, to put the larger goals ahead of self and institution. Universities are competitive. University researchers are competitive. But this turns that upside down, places it aside, and creates a community to solve a huge challenge.”

Given how quickly the knowledge has grown, many may not realize that someone at another institution or even in the same city already has half the solution to their problem or has tried a similar approach to no avail, organizers stressed.

Ultimately, CanCOVID’s mission is to enable the agile, evidence-based decision-making needed to help steer Canada safely through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This isn’t about what research you can or should be doing – this is about providing a platform for people to communicate better,” said Daley, who also serves as Western’s Special Advisor to the President on Data Strategy.

Since its soft launch at the end of March, CanCOVID has 1,400 users already on board having “conversation that never would have happened,” Daley said. “Just in that, I feel it has been worth it so far.”

Daley, who has two COVID-19-related research projects of his own, applauded the teamwork among researchers, postsecondary institutions and government agencies, as well as private-sector partners. The instant messaging platform Slack, for example, donated three months of the Slack Enterprise Platform to establish the CanCOVID foundation.

“This is about rapid response – to the pandemic and to questions about our work on it,” Daley said.

He cited the need for government agencies to have access to near-instant information on, for example, how many COVID-19 vaccines are currently being explored in Canada. Those details are key to informing the public and policies affecting them.

For Gallager, CanCOVID success will come in two waves.

“The initial success is to bring people together in one place to have fruitful conversations. Already, that is happening. It is fantastic to see,” she said.

“The larger ambition, however, is to have a larger mechanism for connecting scientific expertise to external partnerships. Think government agencies or policy-makers. That’s an ambitious goal – one we haven’t quite figured out yet. But it is our vision.”

Long after COVID-19 pandemic subsides, the connections and relationships built atop the new platform will position Canada well in other areas of research, organizers emphasized.

“We can use this as a badly needed pilot project,” Daley said. “If successful, and taking all the lessons learned, this is a model we can take and create a platform like this covering broader issues.”

Those researchers and scientists on the COVID-19 front lines have found themselves working around the clock to steer financial resources, equipment and supplies, information and expertise to the people who need it most. The unexpected COVID-19 shutdown, however, has left many scientists from other sectors locked out of their labs.

With that much talent sitting on the sidelines, organizers see that as an advantage for the burgeoning network’s ability to recruit people like Gallager to help.

“My work does not concern the front lines or anywhere near it in terms of this response,” explained the noted space researcher, who has extensive experience building cross-country teams. “However, I not only have useful expertise, but I have space and time to make useful contributions.”

In the end, CanCOVID is simply a vehicle to help in unusual times.

“We need to have people outside health care working on this effort. Health-care professionals and health researchers are at the centre of COVID-19 activity and can’t answer all the calls,” Gallagher said.

“This has been a team effort, with a core group of people working hard to make things happen quickly. We went from a recognized need to launching the platform in under two weeks. We came together because something needed to be done.”