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opinion

Meric Gertler is president of the University of Toronto and chair of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities.

As we face the largest public health crisis in over a century, some have suggested we should reverse or “undo” globalization – that we should rely less on foreign partners and instead become more self-reliant. Good idea?

Not when it comes to research.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, our governments are scouring the globe to locate supplies of testing kits, N95 and surgical masks, face shields and ventilators. The vulnerability of these global supply chains has now become clear, and governments are already taking steps to identify alternative suppliers locally, and understandably so. At a time when our national security and well-being are at stake, it seems sensible to shorten such supply chains, even if locally produced substitutes are more expensive.

However, that same logic does not apply to research and discovery, and to think so would be a grave mistake.

Canadians want access to a vaccine or treatments for COVID-19 as quickly as possible. Experience has shown that open collaboration with scientists around the world is the fastest and smartest way forward.

Once an effective COVID-19 vaccine or antiviral agent has been found, attention will focus on securing supply lines – and domestic production capacity – for these strategic commodities. Questions of ownership and access to the intellectual property underlying the vaccine or therapeutics, as well as the cost per dose, will also come into sharp relief.

But the fundamental truth about the advancement of science is that it thrives on openness, interaction and collaboration on a global scale. It is, by and large, a team sport whose most rapid advances are achieved when international co-operation is fostered, not frustrated. To date, we have already seen many examples of the benefits of this collaboration. Consider the incredible pace at which the genetic structure of the virus was fully sequenced, and how quickly molecular tests to detect it were developed and made available around the world.

We can see this same principle at work in the effort to identify new diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. The World Health Organization’s Solidarity project is a multi-country megatrial for potential therapies, with Canadian scientists actively engaged. At the University of Toronto, Keith Pardee is part of a four-country project to develop a rapid, inexpensive test that can be easily deployed in remote locations. And the University of Saskatchewan’s VIDO-InterVac lab is collaborating with the International Vaccine Institute in South Korea on vaccine development. Efforts like these will be essential in the search for solutions to the crisis.

There is also another way in which the supply chains underpinning scientific breakthroughs are global. The research talent at the heart of this current effort is itself fundamentally globalized. Many of our leading scientists in Canada were recruited from abroad, often with the assistance of federal initiatives, including research-chair programs. For example, Josef Penninger, recently recruited to the University of British Columbia from Vienna, is working with Toronto’s Haibo Zhang and Arthur Slutsky, alongside colleagues in Spain and Sweden to develop a promising antiviral therapy to combat the virus.

Many of the Canadians engaged in this activity have either studied or worked abroad before embarking on academic careers in Canada. They return with knowledge acquired in other leading research centres around the world, as well as networks and professional relationships that enable them to collaborate effectively, at a time when the world – and Canada – depend on such teamwork to make critical discoveries.

So, while shortening supply chains might make sense when it comes to the production of protective equipment and ventilators, creating barriers to the free flow of knowledge and international scientific collaboration is precisely the wrong response at a time like this. Instead, we should be doing exactly the opposite – encouraging global research co-operation and the circulation of talent. The health and well-being of all Canadians will depend on it.

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