As COVID-19 spreads internationally and at home, Canadian scientists have been given almost $27 million in federal government funding to accelerate research aimed at mitigating the outbreak and its negative impacts.
The emergency grants, administered by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), were announced in Montreal on Friday by federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu. They will support 47 research teams across the country over two years of coronavirus research.
The call for applicants went out Feb. 10 and the expedience of the process “and how quickly our scientists came to the table tells you that this is something that is being taken incredibly seriously by the government and by the researchers,” said CIHR president Dr. Michael Strong. “I’ve never seen a priority assigned to something with this magnitude of a response ever and I’ve been doing research for 30 years.”
The CIHR received 227 research proposals that were peer-reviewed. A priority was placed on acute responses to contain the virus. Strong said it could normally take as long as a year and a half for funds to be directed to a new stream of research.
Sachdev Sidhu, a University of Toronto professor whose lab has a reputation for cutting-edge advancements in protein engineering, was awarded one of the grants, and he believes researchers will ultimately get out in front of coronavirus.
“Science does have answers,” he said. “It’s not always easy but it’s definitely heading in the right direction.
“These things are challenging but we’re not having the flu epidemic (of 1918-1920) when millions of people died. I think this will be contained.”
Toronto’s scientific community is well represented in the research awards. Three other academics at U of T will receive direct funding for their projects. An additional four U of T researchers are receiving grants as part of affiliated organizations.
Funding has also been allotted to multiple projects at York and Ryerson universities.
There are no current treatments for the new coronavirus but Sidhu has assembled a team to develop antiviral compounds to fight COVID-19. Building on previous research into SARS, which he said is highly similar to COVID-19, and MERS, he believes candidate drugs can be developed within the two-year time frame.
“These viruses are all related,” he said. “So our goal is to make a drug that actually targets the whole family, which I think has now become feasible with us having advanced methods and having all the information on, not just the one virus that we’re dealing with now, but its relatives, the ones have been historically causing disease — SARS and MERS.”
Sidhu, a 51-year-old molecular genetics prof who works out of the U of T’s Donnelly Centre, and his team received a grant of $886,090.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said in a press release accompanying the announcement that “the research to be undertaken by the successful teams will help answer some of our most pressing questions about COVID-19 and help to develop the tools we need to effectively respond to this global public health emergency.”
Researchers represent a wide variety of specialties, from evaluating diagnostic tools to developing candidate vaccines. About half the funds are going to study social policy and the public response. Researchers will create strategies to tackle the human cost of misinformation, stigmatization and fear that can typically accompany these outbreaks.
Research priorities were developed with international partners including the World Health Organization and the Global Research for Infectious Disease Preparedness and were refined after a meeting of leading health experts at WHO’s Geneva headquarters in mid-February.
The research, said Strong, taps into expertise that Canada has in abundance but also takes into consideration other global research. For example, not all the funds are going toward developing a vaccine because the worldwide scientific community is investigating that.
While the CIHR is taking the lead in this initiative and contributing $16.4 million, several government agencies are also providing funding to bring the total commitment to $26.8 million. Some of that money was earmarked for emergency health responses.
All of the agencies working together in this manner is “very unusual,” said Strong, and underlines “the urgency for us as a country.”
Strong also noted that what we learn from fighting COVID-19 “will help guide how we monitor epidemics in the future as they begin to appear. Because this is not the last of these, that’s for sure.”
Sidhu’s research builds on advancements already achieved in his lab, including the work done under his tutelage by Wei Zhang. A post-doctoral student at the time, Zhang won praise in 2016 for developing synthetic ubiquitins — short amino acid chains that are present in almost all plant and animal tissue — to act as antiviral agents to fight pathogens such as Ebola, SARS and MERS.
Within his winning proposal, Sidhu states his team’s goal this way: “We have previously successfully engineered small proteins capable of blocking the activity of an enzyme of the virus that is crucial for its replication and for shutting down the human immune response. We plan on using a similar strategy to build blockers of the new virus … we will use these blocking proteins to find chemical drug candidates that block the activity of the viral enzyme in infected cells, which can then be developed as therapeutics.”
Sidhu says there are three ways to deal with a virus such as COVID-19.
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When there is no treatment, the tactic is to diagnose and quarantine. Another approach is vaccination but, as Sidhu points out, while it is the most effective, it is “difficult for sporadic outbreaks.”
The third way, what Sidhu is working on, is direct treatments on people who are already ill to stop them from spreading any coronavirus.
“If you can catch an outbreak early, even at the level of thousands of patients, and you can treat those people with an effective drug like we’re making, you can basically kind of eliminate” the spread of the virus, he says.