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opinion

Jeremy Farrar is director of Wellcome, an independent charitable foundation supporting research to improve health across the world, which brings together science, innovation and public health

On the Government of Canada’s website there is a digital tally counter, showing the daily uptick in coronavirus cases and, sadly, the steadily rising death toll.

Such grim counts are replicated worldwide, logging the rise and spread of a global crisis the like of which has not been seen in 100 years.

More than 12,000 kilometres away another clock ticks, quietly, but expectantly toward, we hope, a moment of light in public health amidst otherwise dark and anxious times.

Since early March, those involved in the effort to address the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been cautiously crossing off the days since the last new case was detected. Forty-two days must pass before the epidemic, which began in August, 2018, can be declared over.

It is still too early to celebrate, but when that day comes, Canada can share in a moment of pride.

Canada has long led the way in global efforts to support, protect and save lives across borders from pandemics and epidemics of infectious diseases, known and unknown.

Ebola, a disease that is both curable and preventable today, would not be so without Canada’s involvement in the discovery and early development of a vaccine. Canada was also one of the earliest supporters and funders of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) which was founded in the wake of the West African Ebola crisis of 2014-16 to advance research into vaccines against other epidemic threats.

Canada’s experience with SARS was one that the country made every effort to ensure would not be repeated. The swift and robust domestic response to COVID-19 comes as no surprise.

Provincial and federal governments should be credited for their early adoption of difficult but critical public health measures such as physical distancing and widespread virus testing, and for their commitment of substantial resources to support the response.

These measures are vital to buy time – time to contain the spread and time to allow the health system to ready itself for when this highly infectious virus can no longer be held back.

Canadians, like Europeans and Americans now, and before them the people of Hubei province in China, will face the full force of COVID-19.

With the unprecedented social, economic and health impacts this pandemic will inevitably bring, countries – Canada included – must resist the understandable temptation to turn inwards to manage the crisis.

As with Ebola and SARS, and any pandemic or epidemic threat, there is only one way the world can exit – and that is through science.

We need diagnostics to detect and limit the spread of this virus, vaccines to provide long-term protection, and treatments to save lives in the shorter-term. All will come only through swift and well-financed research.

Since this virus was first detected at the end of December by scientists in China, research has moved at a staggering pace in search of these essential tools.

And while global leaders may be taking brave, forward-thinking, calculated risks on public health measures, the same cannot yet be said for funding the research effort.

The immediate global shortfall for the science needed currently stands at US$8-billion – and it is needed urgently. Global financial packages, for example through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, are not yet available for this research effort.

The largest share, US$6-billion, is needed to support drug, vaccine and testing development and to ensure manufacture and scale-up capacity is ready and waiting when breakthroughs are made. The remaining US$2-billion is to support the World Health Organization, the vaccines alliance Gavi, and to shore-up the public health response.

Ensuring that all advances are available and will benefit people living in any and every country affected, is non-negotiable.

Canada has invested generously in the domestic COVID-19 research response. It must now step forward alongside like-minded, enlightened global powers – Germany, Japan, Norway and Britain – as it has always done in the past.

With its proud record as being one of the first countries to step up on global public health and for its leadership on equitable access and protecting scientific advances as a public good, Canada again has an opportunity to lead.

By funding the call, the federal government can be part of the solution that will ultimately prevent more lockdowns and end the threat to its citizens and citizens globally.

This virus transcends all borders; our response must too. We must waste no time if we are to protect lives and livelihoods in the pandemic and to prevent future tragedies. If we are to change the story that today we have no vaccine, no effective treatment for COVID-19, then we must come together globally and fund our only exit strategy from this pandemic. We must fund the science.

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