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Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, at the University of Toronto.Courtesy of manufacturer

Canada’s first research institute dedicated to studying pandemics will help to address the biggest questions about the current global outbreak of disease – and aims to be prepared for the next one.

On Wednesday, the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto will launch the Institute for Pandemics, which will study how pandemics arise and how to mitigate their effects on health systems and economies.

The institute is supported by a $1-million grant from the Vohra-Miller Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in Toronto. It will house three centres: the Centre for Pandemic Readiness, which will study modelling early warnings signs; the Centre for Pandemic Resilience, focusing on improving public-health systems; and the Centre for Pandemic Recovery, which will help in planning health systems and economic recovery.

Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School, said pandemics touch on every aspect of life – and in order to create effective health care systems and policies to deal with them, experts from a broad range of fields must be included. But until now, no facility existed in Canada to bring them all together in one place.

It’s why the institute will focus on a holistic approach that brings together epidemiologists, biostatisticians, doctors, nurses, economists, social workers and more. They will work with other institutions and the government of Canada to inform health and economic policy.

“We want to be able to take a Canadian perspective,” Dr. Brown said. “This will allow us to answer important questions ... everything from the sort of masks to use, through to the issue of inequity and who the pandemic is affecting.”

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Professor Jennifer Gibson, a bioethics expert with the Institute for Pandemics and director of the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics.Courtesy of manufacturer

Jennifer Gibson, a bioethics expert with the Institute for Pandemics and director of the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics, said while pandemics have long been an important topic of study in public health, experts weren’t fully prepared for the broad effects of this year’s novel coronavirus.

“Many of our health systems had influenza pandemic plans, and a lot of those had been sitting on the shelf for a period of time. ... None of us really had the experience to know what a total societal response would look like,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot, and this [institute] is a response to the need for that learning.”

Dr. Brown said that in the short term, the experts will focus on how to best move forward in the face of a possible second wave of COVID-19. They’ll address such issues as border closings, how to send children back to school, or the best practices for wearing masks.

But the prospect of another global pandemic is not a question of if, but when, Dr. Gibson said. So while the coronavirus pandemic will be the focus of study in the short term, the aim of the institute is also to be ready for future global contagions, which may not be a long way off.

“This is not the only pandemic that we will experience,” Dr. Gibson said. “We have an opportunity right now to take stock of what we’ve learned so far from this COVID-19 experience and ask ourselves how we may do things differently that would minimize the adverse consequences for particular populations within our society.”

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