Marshalling a response to COVID-19 and future health risks at Canada’s Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats
When the first COVID-19 case in Canada was identified in January 2020, McMaster University was uniquely equipped to immediately begin fighting it on multiple fronts, thanks in large part to early and ongoing investment by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The agency has enabled McMaster – Canada’s most research-intensive university – to attract and retain world-class scientists and to build the infrastructure they need to carry out cutting-edge work.
McMaster was ideally positioned to help lead Canadian efforts to isolate and purify the SARS-CoV-2 virus from patients soon after some of our country’s first COVID-19 cases were identified. The university’s reputation as a leader in infectious disease research, its Level 3 containment facilities for studying serious pathogens, and being home to the country’s only bat-breeding laboratory (led by neuroethologist Paul Faure) allowed Karen Mossman, a virologist and McMaster’s vice-president of research, to recruit some of Canada’s top talent to her lab.
Like professional athletes, outstanding scientists have the power to choose the team with the greatest championship potential. McMaster has scored big with recruits, including then post-doc Arinjay Banerjee, who joined Dr. Mossman’s laboratory within the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR) – both of which have been built with CFI funding. Dr. Mossman and her team had been working on virus host interactions, and Dr. Banerjee had developed the special skills necessary to culture and grow coronaviruses, which are notoriously finicky. And early in 2020, their expertise was suddenly in high demand.
When our clinical colleagues in Toronto started to see patients who were COVID-19 positive, our team was able to work collaboratively to isolate the virus out of patient samples.— Dr. Karen Mossman, Virologist, Vice-President of Research, McMaster University
“When our clinical colleagues in Toronto started to see patients who were COVID-19 positive, our team was able to work collaboratively to isolate the virus out of patient samples,” says Dr. Mossman, adding that a $1.5-million award from CFI’s Exceptional Opportunities Fund, specifically for COVID-19 research, enabled her to upgrade the Level 3 facility to work on SARS-CoV-2 – and to move forward even more quickly on the COVID-19 front.
Dr. Mossman points to McMaster’s collaborative approach to research as pivotal to what happened next, after her McMaster colleague, Andrew McArthur, an expert in bioinformatics, took up the baton, sequencing and verifying the genome of the SARS-CoV-2.
From there, says Dr. Mossman, it was all about growing the virus and sending it to other Canadian institutions with Level 3 facilities, recognizing that the more scientists there were investigating its different aspects, the better possible outcomes for everyone around the world.
McMaster was at the forefront of the field long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. In fact, discoveries made by McMaster professor emeritus Frank Graham nearly five decades ago are used in AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. And Gerry Wright, founding director of the IIDR, and the institute’s trans-disciplinary team have been leading the fight against superbugs for decades.
According to Dr. Wright – who chose to build his research program in Canada in large part because of the CFI’s creation – the most innovative discoveries come when discipline-specific boundaries are eliminated.
“Since its inception, the IIDR has prided itself on multidisciplinary work, from biomedical research and mathematical modelling to population biology, anthropology and engineering,” Dr. Wright says. He notes that it is this collaborative approach that allows the institute to attract and retain global talent, including researchers like Jonathan Stokes, the newest member of Dr. Wright’s group, who was lured from MIT to continue his research using artificial intelligence to identify new antibiotics. None of this would have been possible without the support of the CFI, Dr. Wright adds.
Not only do these big infectious disease problems require well-resourced biomedical research to deliver new vaccines and new drugs, they also require a societal response.
Building on this track record, in 2020 McMaster announced it was marshalling this deep well of expertise to fight COVID-19 and prepare for the inevitable pandemics to follow with the creation of Canada’s Global Nexus for Pandemic and Biological Threats.
“Not only do these big infectious disease problems require well-resourced biomedical research to deliver new vaccines and new drugs, they also require a societal response,” says Dr. Wright, who is the inaugural lead of Global Nexus.
“The impact on the economy, on society as a whole, on information, on trust, really becomes an issue, and we can’t solve one problem without solving the others,” he says. “The objective of Global Nexus is to integrate all these disciplines and bring the best scholarship, the best research tools and infrastructure, and the best minds to bear on these big problems, because the current pandemic is not going to be the last one.”
McMaster researchers are mobilizing their knowledge to better serve Canadians. As co-lead of the Canadian Network for Modelling Infectious Diseases (CANMOD), they’re studying how diseases spread and helping to anticipate the future course of an outbreak and, through the COVID-19 Evidence Network (COVID-END) hosted at McMaster, they’re rapidly synthesizing the best available evidence about key COVID-19 topics to ensure decision-makers have timely access to the best science. They’re evaluating the torrent of studies and reports to determine if the use of a specific drug or intervention (hydroxychloroquine, for instance) is backed by scientific evidence – critical information to guide decision-making and policies at all levels of government. And researchers in the Canadian Research Data Centre Network, a consortium of universities and Statistics Canada headquartered at McMaster, are helping to drive policy change in areas like education, while research from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, a landmark national project based at McMaster, is providing insight into how the pandemic has affected older Canadians.
McMaster is one of just a few academic institutions in Canada with the capability of manufacturing vaccines for human trials, with researchers also developing new methods for delivering vaccines that advance the science in this field. McMaster researchers already have two vaccine projects that use this technology: one for tuberculosis, which is already in phase II clinical trials, and a next-generation coronavirus vaccine that is moving forward through the pipeline.
“We started the Global Nexus initiative to bring together great biomedical researchers, engineers, evidence experts, sociologists and humanists to rapidly solve big problems on a global scale, supported by the right infrastructure,” says Dr. Wright. “By doing this, we’re now better prepared to fight future pandemics and biological threats that we will inevitably face.”
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