Dalhousie investigator’s hunt for COVID-19 biomarkers highlights need for domestic and international research collaboration

In the weeks after the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 first loomed as a global threat but before rapid-response research funding was deployed in Canada, Halifax-based immunologist Dr. David Kelvin began working proactively to coordinate research on the virus with domestic and international colleagues. He and more than a dozen other scientists formed a network of investigators to collaborate on COVID-19-related research projects.

Called the Canadian COVID-19 Research Network, the group was first formulated in January to bring multiple research projects under a single grant application, led by Kelvin, a professor at Dalhousie University with a research focus in emerging infectious diseases. Then, on February 10, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) launched its Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity, whereupon Dr. Kelvin and his collaborators split off into four distinct applications, all of which were ultimately funded.

Even after its members hived off into separately funded projects, the research network has persisted. ”Everybody was within the network, and we wanted to use that to facilitate the exchanges of materials, reagents, ideas, communication, regardless of who’s in what grant,” Kelvin told Research Money. The members meet regularly in group video sessions that they call “fireside chats” and share a Slack channel.

A global effort to predict disease severity

Dr. Kelvin’s own project seeks to identify biomarkers that predict whether the course of the disease in patients will be mild or severe. He’s working with an international team of 26 investigators based in China, Vietnam, Spain, Italy, Mozambique, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco, Cote D’ Ivoire and Canada, to examine the blood of people who have contracted the virus. “If we could predict who would be severe, mild, or who would require ICU or be critical, then we could have those patients who require hospitalization and ICU admission be admitted as early as possible, and receive the highest level of attention,” says Kelvin.

Collaborating with so many international partners presents a significant — and expensive — administrative burden, however. Recognizing this need, Research Nova Scotia (RNS) contributed another $600,000 to the project, while the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation contributed $250,000.

“This extra injection of funds … allowed us to increase the number of patients we’re going to look at around the world, hire more study nurses who could look after more details on those patients, as well as allow us to look at more samples,” explains Kelvin.

“The role of Research Nova Scotia is to support research in this province,” says Stefan Leslie, CEO of the recently formed research organization since last summer. “In this particular crisis, our role does shift to identify where there is research that needs to be undertaken urgently, where there’s a perishability to the opportunity or to the data that can be collected, and in particular where that research can contribute to the societal response.”

Because CIHR had already reviewed Kelvin’s project, Research Nova Scotia was able to move quickly, without needing to assess the scientific quality of the proposal. ”We simply were able to look at whether additional funds could realize additional research objectives,” says Leslie. Finding a mechanism to determine the anticipated severity of a positive COVID test “depends on significant field sampling, collecting of blood to identify biomarkers, and being able to track the outcomes of those patients over time. The additional investment allows for more sampling in more countries and better tracking of what the biomarkers reveal with their outcome.”

International coordination is essential

Kelvin stresses the need for an international approach to infectious disease research. He maintains a research group in China in order to be well-positioned to respond to emerging infectious diseases in southeast Asia. ”We wanted to be in that context. We’ve seen many of these emergency outbreaks over the last 20 years. There was SARS, HN1N1, ZIKA, now we have COVID-19,” says Kelvin.

”We know that in the early stages you must respond immediately, not only on the public health but also on the research side. You want to be able to get as much information as possible, so you can help direct therapeutic vaccine development, but also to help public health on their decision-making process.”

Kelvin commends Canada’s fast-tracked research funding. “The normal funding stream takes six months or longer, and by that time, you’re so far behind what’s taking place that you’re playing an enormous catch-up game.  It’s really great to have an immediate response for funding.” Not every country has it so good. At the time of our interview, Kelvin pointed out that he had colleagues in the US who still didn’t have access to emergency funding for COVID-19.