From vitamin D to the disease-fighting potential of sewage, the latest research funded by Ottawa shows how rapidly the science surrounding COVID-19 is evolving.
On Thursday, the federal government announced which projects have been selected for funding in its largest competition yet for pandemic-related research. Compared to the results of an earlier funding call in February, the list reflects a health crisis that has progressed from being a hypothetical threat to a daily reality affecting the life and work of most Canadians.
Drawn from a pool for 1,488 proposals, the winning projects will split more than $109-million in funding, allocated last April as part of the federal government’s COVID-19 response strategy.
“It’s a balanced portfolio when you think about what we need to be doing against the virus,” said Michael Strong, president of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the federal agency that oversaw the competition.
There is another way in which the new phase of funding is more balanced than the first, Dr. Strong said. This time around, 44 per cent of the successful applicants are women.
Results of the earlier round appeared to favour male researchers. The agency then realized that female researchers have generally been experiencing greater disruptions to their work because of the pandemic, Dr. Strong said, including by bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impact on family life. This left many with less time to prepare grant applications.
“It wasn’t a level playing field,” he added. During the second competition researchers were allowed 10 additional days to submit their proposals, a change that appears to have corrected the problem.
More than 1,000 reviewers were involved in judging the projects on their scientific merits. Proposals were grouped into five categories:
Several treatment options for COVID-19 are being explored by projects in this category, which includes the largest single grant of $4.2-million, awarded to a study led by Francine Ducharme, a clinical researcher at Montreal’s Sainte-Justine hospital. Starting in September, Dr. Ducharme will conduct a randomized trial, based on preliminary evidence, to test if vitamin D acts as a deterrent to infection when administered in high doses to thousands of health care workers.
“This is the only study worldwide looking at primary prevention [using vitamin D],” she said.
When the pandemic hit, John Lewis and his colleagues at the University of Alberta realized they could repurpose a system for introducing DNA into cells that they developed as a cancer therapy to instead train the immune system to fight COVID-19. Dr. Lewis’s approach includes an innovation originally developed at Dalhousie University in Halifax that makes it easier to open up a portal into a cell and slip the DNA in. With $4.1-million in federal funding, his aim is to advance the strategy to human clinical trials as early as August, he said.
In this round there were fewer projects funded that involved diagnostics tests to spot COVID-19 infections, which is now becoming routine. One exception is a proposal by Yingfu Li, a biochemist at McMaster University in Hamilton, who has been awarded $1.3-million to develop a test using saliva that does not require specialized laboratory equipment. Such a test could be performed at a school, workplace or home – offering a significant advantage in the effort to detect emerging outbreaks.
Social policy and public-health responses
The most wide-ranging category includes an effort by Michael Parkins, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of Calgary, to test waste water in the city’s sewers in order to spot where new outbreaks may be emerging at the neighbourhood level. The data could give public-health officials the heads-up to respond and to focus measures where they are most needed. Lori Wilkinson, a sociologist at the University of Manitoba, will use her funding to study the adverse effects of the pandemic on First Nation, immigrant and other communities in Canada, the United States and Mexico. Both projects are funded at the half-million-dollar level.
Clinical management and health system interventions
Corinne Hohl, who is both an emergency room physician and a researcher at the University of British Columbia, is leading a $2.1-million study that exemplifies this category. By drawing on data from 51 emergency departments across eight provinces, her goal is to better guide the on-the-spot decisions that are made when COVID-19 patients are admitted to hospital. Dr. Hohl said the project would be moving quickly to ramp up data collection on as many as 100,000 cases.
“Hopefully we can be ready for a fall wave – which I hope doesn’t come,” she said.
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