Ottawa moves with “unprecedented” speed to fast-track COVID-19 research

As the number of cases grows dramatically every day, research groups worldwide are racing to create a vaccine for COVID-19. On March 11, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1-billion COVID-19 response fund, of which $275 million will go to research and medical countermeasures. On March 23, we learned that $192 million will be channeled through the new Strategic Innovation Fund COVID-19 stream to Vancouver-based biotech firm AbCellera, which is developing antibodies and therapeutics, and Quebec City-based Medicago, which has already developed a vaccine candidate for the virus. Other recipients include University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac), the National Research Council of Canada, and the Toronto-based digital health firm BlueDot. 

So far, $52.6 million has been awarded to university researchers by Canada’s top funding agencies. The new tranche of public funding announced by the prime minister came on top of the March 6 announcement of winners for the CIHR Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Competition, initially valued at $6.75 million when the competition was opened — this money was quickly mobilized through the Emerging Health Threats Research Fund, previously used during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, as well as in response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the Alberta wildfires — and then later raised to $26.8 million. The competition was created in support of efforts “to accelerate the development, testing and implementation of medical and social countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of the COVID-19 and its negative consequences on people and communities.” For medical countermeasures, the maximum amount per grant was set at $1 million over two years; grants for social and policy countermeasures research could receive $500,000 over two years.

Rapid mobilization

Within a period of three weeks, 150 volunteer peer reviewers assessed 227 applications, of which 47 were initially chosen for funding, and then 49 more projects were announced on March 19, with an additional $25 million of federal funding from the $275 million first announced on March 11. The total $52.6 million of university research funding is being provided through the CIHR ($42.2M), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council ($714,250), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council ($858,462), the Canada Research Coordinating Committee through the New Frontiers in Research Fund ($7M), the International Development Research Centre ($1.5M) and Genome Canada ($244,715).

The funds have been directed to research in two categories: 1) medical countermeasures, subdivided into the five strategic priorities of diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics, clinical management, and transmission dynamics; and 2) social and policy countermeasures, subdivided into the three strategic priorities of public health response, social dynamics and communication, and logistics and governance. 

Table 1: Funding breakdown by research area and priority

Item Number Funded Total Number % Success Rate % of Total Funding Funded Amount
Overall 96 227 42.3% 100% $52,552,724
Medical countermeasures 50 117 42.7% 67.1% $35,270,876
Diagnostics 12 29 41.4% 17.0% $8,944,969
Vaccines 6 19 31.6% 9.6% $5,062,762
Therapeutics 16 43 37.2% 19.1% $10,048,470
Clinical management 7 11 63.6% 10.9% $5,739,152
Transmission dynamics and animal host, modelling** 11 21 23.8% 12.2% $6,406,624
Social and policy countermeasures 46 110 41.8% 32.9% $17,281,848
Studying the public health response and it’s impact 23 49 46.9% 17.7% $9,323,830
Social dynamics, communications and trust 12 40 30% 8.0% $4,216,738
Coordination, governance and logistics 9 15 60% 5.3% $2,810,179

SOURCE: Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) **the transmission bucket includes applications with both a medical countermeasure and social/policy countermeasure focus.

The strategic priorities for research were selected in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), a network of public funding organizations from around the world that coordinate their investments in infectious diseases research, of which Canada is a leading member. The WHO was first informed by Chinese partners about the outbreak of an unknown pneumonia in Wuhan on December 31st, 2019, and then co-coordinated a meeting in Geneva on March 11-12 with GloPID-R to create an R&D Roadmap for COVID-19, based on the WHO’s existing R&D Blueprint strategy for infectious disease pandemics. 

Through the CIHR, Canada moved quickly on organizing fast-track research funding for the pandemic. CIHR announced its rapid response funding competition on March 8, almost a week before the GloPID-R meeting in Geneva, knowing that the details would have to be tweaked based on the results of that forum. “We needed to get on things as fast as possible,” says Charu Kaushic, a GloPID-R vice-chair on behalf of CIHR, where she serves as scientific director for the Institute of Infection and Immunity. Kaushic is co-leading the COVID-19 research initiative, along with Steven Hoffman, scientific director of CIHR’s Institute of Population and Public Health.

Normally it would take at least a year to put together such a funding opportunity. “To do it in five weeks time is unprecedented in terms of the coordination it took for multiple agencies to come together at that point,” Kuashic said. “Rapid response at that point was really about putting in funding right away so that people who are experts and researchers in this area can put the pedal to the metal to get going,” Kaushic said. 

A balanced portfolio of projects

To achieve speed and efficiency, CIHR streamlined the CV requirements, shortened the application and set highly focused evaluation criteria, emphasizing the ability of the research team to execute on the proposal and whether the objective was aligned with the strategic priorities from the GloPID-R Roadmap.

“In the funding call, reviewers were instructed very clearly that we’re looking for rapid response that aligns to [the eight strategic priorities]. It had to be in the acute containment phase, and if it wasn’t, it was scored lower,” said Adrian Mota, associate VP of Research, Knowledge Translation and Ethics at CIHR, in conversation with RE$EARCH MONEY. The applications were then bucketed into the eight strategic areas and ranked within each bucket. “Then we spread the money… to make sure we’re funding a balanced portfolio of research projects,” explained Mota.   

The eight strategic priorities reflect the need for both short-term and long-term responses to the pandemic — that is, the immediate need for effective diagnostics, the possibility of developing therapeutics within the next few months, and the ultimate goal of creating a vaccine for COVID-19. During the SARS epidemic in 2003, Canadian funding agencies invested heavily in vaccine research. That virus ran its course and did not become endemic, and much of that vaccine research was abandoned. “Scientists have no way of looking into a crystal ball,” says Kaushic, emphasizing that we don’t know what will happen with the current coronavirus pandemic. Scientists must prepare for the worst-case scenario. 

Even as CIHR focuses on rapid response, there’s an understanding that further investments will be needed to improve our research preparedness for future outbreaks. “We’re now in the exponential phase in Canada, and so we need to move into mitigation, clinical management, and stuff like that,” Mota said. “[We know] there will be another one of these at some point — another pandemic, another virus — and we need to be prepared to respond rapidly, no matter what it is. The investments right now have to be on this and that’s what everyone needs to be focused on, but there is an important point to be made, about how do we have the capacity as a country to respond whenever the next one hits us.” 

Table 2: The number of projects associated with which Canadian universities

Number of funded projects
University of British Columbia 9
Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia) 3
Unity Health Toronto 5
University of Ottawa 5
University of Alberta 11
University of Toronto 5
University of Calgary 4
Université de Sherbrooke 2
Sinai Health System (Toronto) 2
Université Laval + Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec – U Laval 7
University Health Network (Toronto) 2
University of Saskatchewan 2
University of Western Ontario 3
Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, B.C.) 3
Bruyère Research Institute 1
York University (Toronto, Ontario) 6
Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario) 1
Memorial University of Newfoundland 1
Ryerson University (Toronto) 3
University of Manitoba 4
McGill University 2
University of The Fraser Valley (BC) 1
Michelle University of Manitoba 1
Royal Roads University (Victoria, BC) 1
Université de Montréal 2
University of Regina (Saskatchewan) 1
Oddette Cancer Centre 1
The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences 1
Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research (Mtl) 2
Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health 1
University of Prince Edward Island 1
CHU de Québec 1
CIUSSS de Centre-Ouest-de-l’Ile-de-Montréal-Jewish General 1
Saint Mary’s University 1