The federal government will spend $1.1-billion to mobilize researchers to find a vaccine or other treatments for COVID-19, support clinical trials and expand national testing, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Mr. Trudeau said the plan includes an investment of close to $115-million for research into vaccines and treatments being developed in hospitals and universities and more than $662-million for clinical trials led by Canadian researchers.
The plan also includes a commitment of $350-million to expand national testing and modelling of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and the creation of an immunity task force to help determine the true extent of virus across Canada and the potential for reinfection before a vaccine is developed.
“A vaccine is the long-term solution to this virus, but these drugs will take months to develop a test, fabricate and roll out,” Mr. Trudeau said at his daily news briefing on Thursday.
Former University of Toronto president David Naylor and McGill University’s Catherine Hankins, a global health expert, will co-chair the panel, which will also include Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam, chief science adviser Mona Nemer and Tim Evans, director of McGill’s school of population and global health, Mr. Trudeau said.
“Canada’s best and brightest will be working on serology testing, blood testing to track and understand immunity to COVID-19. They’ll be looking at key questions like how many people beyond those we’ve already tested have had COVID-19, whether you’re immune once you’ve had it and, if so, how long that lasts,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Dr. Naylor said the task force will work to get a sense of background immunity against COVID-19 across the country, saying it’s important to get a big-picture view and look at vulnerable communities.
He said they will be doing longitudinal work to see how immunity of individuals changes over time and if people get reinfected. He said the task force will also work with scientists to get an in-depth understanding of biology of immunity to the virus.
“We still don’t know how big the iceberg is in this strange viral disease,” he said.
Mr. Trudeau said that over the course of two years, at least a million Canadians will be tested as part of the group’s study. The findings of the research will help with rolling out a potential vaccine and determining future public-health measures, he said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Toronto and the University Health Network in Toronto, was enthused by the announcement and said that funding for research is of tremendous need to improve diagnostics, therapeutics and prevention of COVID-19.
Dr. Bogoch said the task force will be able to gain a better understanding of the pandemic’s impact because they will be able to collect data that will help focus public-health policy.
“For example, to what extent are people who have recovered from COVID-19 immune? And if so, how long does that immunity last for? Those are extremely important questions to answer because you can … focus vaccine research around this. You can also target prevention methods in these populations as well,” he said.
Dr. Bogoch also explained that the type of testing Mr. Trudeau raised – serology testing – determines whether someone has had COVID-19 in the past. This testing is not yet being done in Canada. He said there are multiple companies and academic groups working on serological tests and they will be used in the country soon.
Mr. Trudeau said it may be a long time before there is a vaccine for COVID-19, but that there are discussions around treatments that might work.
“A vaccine, obviously, arriving soon would be the best solution," the Prime Minister said. "But we need to make sure we are exploring all different ways of ensuring that Canadians’ quality of life and safety and protection is upheld in the best way we possibly can going forward.”
Unlike the more than $50-million in federal research grants for coronavirus studies made earlier this year, before Canada felt the full brunt of COVID-19, the science focus of Thursday’s much larger announcement was clearly aimed at dealing with a pandemic in full swing.
“We are in a different phase … the virus is here,” said Charu Kaushic, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton and scientific director of the Institute for Infection and Immunity, part of Canada’s medical research apparatus.
Dr. Kaushic said there was enough capacity within the research community to absorb the new funds, in part because researchers in related fields are now coming forward with ideas and projects that may help battle the virus, reduce infections and improve outcomes for patients.
“Scientists are going all out to say, ‘I’m here. What can I do?’ ” Dr. Kaushic said. “Will it make a difference? I hope so.”
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