When the World Health Organization officially categorized the growing global COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, Western molecular virologist Stephen Barr, PhD, was in the U.S. with his family.
The Canadian government reacted swiftly to the news, calling for all Canadians to return home from abroad. The Barr family crossed the border 24 hours later to a brave new world.
Barr studies highly pathogenic viruses such as HIV and Ebola (modified) at Western’s Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation facility (ImPaKT), an advanced containment and imaging laboratory, and he fully understood the cause for concern.
The timing of ImPaKT’s opening just one year prior was fortuitous for Barr and his collaborators, Eric Arts, Chil-Yong Kang and Ryan Troyer: when COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks, they were able to pivot quickly to focus on the new coronavirus.
While he was quarantined, Barr and his colleagues learned they had been awarded a $1-million grant by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to study SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and to use their expertise in virology and vaccine development to investigate ways to stop it.
“When I learned of a massive outbreak of an unknown illness in Wuhan, China, originating from a wet market, I took notice,” said Barr. He teaches several courses at Schulich that include lectures on emerging deadly viruses, and many of them originate in wet markets.
“Once I heard Chinese officials were attempting to build a hospital in six days to accommodate patients, I knew this was going to be very bad. As soon as my quarantine was over, I literally jumped into the brand new Containment Level 3 (CL3) laboratory in ImPaKT and got to work.”
At the time, most laboratories were halting non-COVID-related research projects because of new public health guidelines and safety protocols.
“Laboratories such as ImPaKT that were qualified and equipped to do so shifted focus towards SARS-CoV-2 to try and understand as much as we could about the virus as quickly as we could,” said Barr.
Part of the CIHR grant also enabled the team to get to work on creating a “vaccine bank” that could be used for the next viral outbreak.
Barr and his colleagues have now teamed up with biologists at the Royal Ontario Museum to study viruses in bats. Examining frozen bat tissue samples the ROM collected from around the world in the past 20 years, they are hunting for coronaviruses with potential for human transmission and using them as the backbone for a bank of vaccines for the next pandemic.
Preparing for this inevitability is necessary, Barr said. The current pandemic has raised global awareness about potentially deadly pathogens lurking in nature that could very well spark more pandemics as animals big and small are driven closer to humanity by climate change, industrialization and extraordinary population growth.
Still, Barr is optimistic.
“I anticipate that the world population will adopt better hygiene and sanitation practices that will ultimately reduce the overall burden of general diseases such as the common cold,” he said.
And the pandemic has helped establish international collaborations that will speed up research in general when things get back to normal, he added.
“It is possible to make meaningful progress in research in a short amount of time with sufficient funding and collaboration. Going from studying a relatively unknown disease to the production of several vaccines in as little as a year is unprecedented.”
He hopes the Canadian government will learn from the pandemic and prioritize research funding for diseases with the potential for mass outbreaks.
“It is also essential that we as a country have our own vaccine production facilities so we are never again reliant on other countries for giving us medicine, medicine that our Canadian scientists are more than competent to develop and produce on our own in a short amount of time,” said Barr.