Health research community could face layoffs as clinical trials stall

Research leaders are warning the federal government that the health research community is at significant risk — right at a time when its value to Canada’s health and prosperity is clearer than ever.

Over the past three weeks, the lights have abruptly gone out at laboratories across Canada, as non-essential science at most universities, colleges and affiliated research centres has been suspended to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Researchers have overwhelmingly supported the decisions to shutter labs, accepting that research projects will temporarily suffer. But as the shutdown wears on, the scope and scale of its impact is coming into focus.

The University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto, the country’s largest hospital-based research program, was the first to suspend non-essential research, including most clinical trials. It is now projecting a loss of $6 million per month in funding, mainly tied to trials, according to Bradly Wouters, UHN’s executive vice-president of science and research, in an interview with Research Money. Two million dollars of that funding is used to cover overhead like building costs, heating and cooling, research support staff and administrative staff, he said.

“That $6 million represents over 600 jobs that right now we don’t have any revenue for. There’s a whole army of people that are part of those clinical projects: research nurses, research coordinators, fellows. They get paid when we put patients on trials and when we’re not putting patients on trials and research is suspended, that revenue stops,” said Wouters.

UHN is not alone. Ontario’s 23 research hospitals employ approximately 20,000 scientists, clinical investigators and other researchers, according to the Council of Academic Hospitals of Ontario (CAHO). Most of those employees do not qualify for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, recently introduced by the federal government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Wouters and others are calling on federal policymakers to expand eligibility to health researchers. In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Paul-Émile Cloutier, President & CEO of HealthCareCAN, wrote: “Without equal access to these supports, Canada’s research hospitals will be forced to lay off researchers and highly qualified personnel in droves. This would in-turn jeopardize Canada’s capacity to contribute to the global research effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and impoverish Canada’s health research potential for years to come.”

Some of UHN’s staff are being redeployed to approximately 40 COVID-19-related research projects that have launched or are on their way to doing so, said Wouters. But he also warned of long-term consequences associated with job losses. “It would cripple [UHN’s] research capacity, and it would also place us at risk of being able to restart and respond and re-attract pharma and industry investment.”