New collaboration platforms bring researchers together to fight COVID-19

Researchers across the country are rapidly mobilizing to fight COVID-19, bringing their expertise and ideas to bear on what could be once-in-a-century pandemic. To organize and concentrate this unparalleled response, two national online platforms have been launched in the span of a few weeks: CanCOVID and COVID-19 Resources Canada.

CanCOVID is government-led, mandated by the Office of the Chief Science Advisor to facilitate collaboration, coordination and communication among scientists, health professionals, and policymakers helping with Canada’s response to the pandemic.

COVID-19 Resources Canada was started by a volunteer team of researchers, students, activists and web developers. It serves as a virtual hub where researchers and members of the public can volunteer their time and expertise, find ongoing research projects and funding opportunities, and access reagents and other resources.

“The aims and functionality of the two initiatives are synergistic and non-overlapping,” according to Dr. Cara Tannenbaum, Departmental Science Advisor for Health Canada and CanCOVID coordination co-lead.

“There’s so much information flying everywhere, that we’re trying to gather it into one place to help people find what they need,” said Dr. Tara Moriarty (PhD), co-lead for COVID-19 Resources Canada, in an interview with Research Money. “There are two different types of information sharing that you need in a rapid-response environment. We need both a dynamic and also private interface where people can talk openly about research that is not out there yet, like CanCOVID, and also what we are doing.”

A Grassroots Initiative

COVID-19 Resources Canada was initiated by Moriarty, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Guillaume Bourque (PhD), a professor in the Department of Human Genetics at McGill University, who independently recognized a need and a desire among health researchers to join the fight against COVID-19. They connected on social media and joined forces.

“I noticed that a key part of the response to COVID-19 in countries like Germany and South Korea, which were handling things well, was the mobilization of scientists with a huge range of skills. But I hadn’t yet seen any sign of it in Canada,” said Moriarty. “It exploded. People really felt the need to contribute.”

Since it launched in late March, the website has attracted more than 3,000 volunteers.

The focus of COVID-19 Resources Canada reflects its grass roots: volunteer recruitment is a pillar. But at the time of publication, a visitor to the website can also browse or search a list of 165 funded COVID-19 research projects and opportunities, and 110 COVID-19 initiatives in Canada and abroad, access a growing database of needed and available reagents, and more.

The platform is still evolving. As the team consults with the researchers and policymakers, it is adding more resources and building additional functionalities to address the community’s needs. Moriarty stressed the need for guidance: “There is no way that we are going to get out of this well and quickly without substantial innovation. And right now there are a lot of people from a lot of sectors who are really determined to work on this. I think we need to be in regular communications with people who have a bird’s eye view of what’s happening and what’s coming so that researchers can get ourselves coordinated to work on the right problems.”

Real-time Research Collaboration

CanCOVID launched on April 2. It uses the messaging and collaboration software Slack to enable members — who must have expertise related to COVID-19 research and response in order to be admitted — to interact with one another in real time. Researchers can join one or more channels organized by topic, including diagnostics, clinical trials, fundamental science, vaccines & therapeutics, indigenous research, social and behavioural sciences, healthcare, modelling and cohort studies.

CanCOVID’s initial goal is to promote rapid communication among researchers focused on similar problems, such as searching for vaccine candidates, identifying recovered patient cohorts for measuring COVID-19 immunity, and supporting clinicians with evidence-based tools and resources. It also creates a two-way channel between researchers and government decision-makers to ensure urgent questions related to the national management of COVID-19 are addressed and research results are ultimately used.

The platform already has more than 1,000 active members. According to Tannenbaum, “Members are trading evidence-based clinical and communication tools that have been implemented in the clinical and long-term care settings. Indigenous researchers are posting culturally appropriate strategies to support rural and remote communities during the crisis. Information about ongoing clinical trials and new methods for viral detection are being discussed.”

Some needs have bubbled up and been shared with the chief science advisor, she added, including requirements for the type of data that will enable the best modelling and the need for secure data sharing.

Pharmacologist Dr. Lauren Kelly (PhD), an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, joined the platform and pitched the idea to create a portal where COVID patients or their families could access information on active clinical trials in Canada. She quickly connected with a bigger team, including representatives from government and industry, who today launched

“We were able to connect on the CanCOVID Slack and were collaborating within hours to merge our ideas beyond what we ever would have been capable of working alone,” Kelly said.

Co-leading CanCOVID are Tannenbaum; Dr. Sarah Gallagher (PhD), Departmental Science Advisor to the Canadian Space Agency; Dr. Alex Mihailidis (PhD), Associate Vice President, International Partnerships at the University of Toronto; and, Dr. Mark Daley (PhD), head of the Board of Directors at Compute Ontario.