Rob Annan
President & CEO - Genome Canada

Canada’s Research Ecosystem & The Response to COVID-19

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As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to impact Canadians, our society and the economy, it is critical that we stay informed with the progress being made by our scientists and medical researchers. 

With that in mind, TheFutureEconomy.ca asked expert Dr. Rob Annan, President and CEO of Genome Canada, to detail Canada’s response to this unprecedented crisis. Hear from Dr. Annan as he outlines the initial research projects being funded in Canada, the strengths of Canada’s research ecosystem, and the role our researchers are playing in the global fight for COVID-19 treatments and cure.


Canada’s Research Ecosystem and Response to Covid-19

Takeaways

  1. The biggest need in Canada’s response to the coronavirus is for rapid testing and point-of-care testing, so that quarantined patients can receive test results quickly.
  2. The federal and provincial response to the coronavirus has been quick, decisive and bold in making funds available for researchers.
  3. The current crisis brings to light the importance of making good, long-term and sustained investments in fundamental scientific research that serves society.

Action

The global research ecosystem can help to manage the spread of the coronavirus by using a diverse, and community-centred approach to research. Researchers must be collaborative, both nationally and internationally, and be open with their research results. This will allow for a multi-pronged attack on the coronavirus and will accelerate the development of a vaccine.


Canada’s Ability to Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic  

The short answer is that we have a large number of talented and committed researchers across the country who are working long hours and with great commitment and focus on developing new tests, new responses and new treatments for this. We are very well-equipped in that way.  

Canada is a world-leader when it comes to health-related genomics research. It was actually a Canadian group that sequenced the SARS genome back in 2003, and that group and many others are using what we learned from that case to actually tackle the coronavirus that we have today. 

Canada is a world-leader when it comes to health-related genomics research.


Healthcare and Research Priorities Canada Must Focus On 

The number one priority is clearly the care and protection of patients and the safety of our frontline health personnel—obviously we need to make sure we are making a lot of investments in protective equipment, safety protocols, treatment processes and so on. That is obviously the number one area of focus.  

After that I’d say that really the big need right now—when it comes to the research side—is to develop rapid testing and point-of-care testing so that we can actually go to the bedside of quarantined patients and get test results very quickly. That will really allow us to help both identify sick patients but also track the disease progression. 

The big need right now—when it comes to the research side—is to develop rapid testing and point-of-care testing so that we can actually go to the bedside of quarantined patients and get test results very quickly.

So rapid diagnostics is a major area of focus. Of course, after that we shift to treatments and therapeutics—and here we are talking about both vaccines and drugs—and those are probably a little more long-term in terms of their impact, but it is important that we get that work started now. And there are potentially areas where we can hopefully find some shortcuts to speed those up.  

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Stakeholders Who Must Be Involved in the Response and Key Actions  

What we are seeing now is probably an appropriate response, which is that we are actually finding a lot of different approaches across the country and around the world, and what we really need is actually a lot of different people trying a lot of different things in order to identify what works. Leadership is clearly important, and I give full marks to the federal government and the provincial governments for being open and communicative about their intentions and by taking bold action.  

And so leadership matters, but at the same time I would say community-driven responses led by researchers who are open with their results, sharing their data and information, and working collaboratively across borders is really going to be the key to helping us find the quickest way to solve this crisis. 

I have to say I am impressed with what I’ve seen so far in terms of community response, and I think that certainly the private sector is looking for ways to get involved. On the research side of things, we know of a number of collaborations involving both academic and government scientists, as well as companies who are going to be essential in terms of the production of any drug or vaccine that comes along. Those kinds of collaborations are going to be absolutely essential—but of course this isn’t simply a medical crisis. The medical crisis, in a sense, is blooming into other areas. There is the actual coronavirus itself—that we need to figure out solutions for—but there will be enormous psychosocial impacts, for instance, and so we need to be thinking of mental health issues, and that is going to involve a different set of healthcare providers and community supports. We know there is already a lot of economic disruption, so it really is a multifaceted challenge that is going to require everybody to be thinking of how they can contribute to the impact, beyond simply looking at the impact of the virus itself.  


The Value of Genomics in Fighting the Coronavirus  

Genomics really is a field of study that looks at how all the molecular systems work together inside living things. That starts with the genome, which is the DNA inside an organism, but it goes beyond that into how the DNA translates into all the other molecular systems inside of living things.  

Chinese scientists were able to sequence the Covid-19 genome in just ten days. When we sequenced the SARS genome, it took us several weeks. Within ten days we actually had the blueprint of DNA that the coronavirus has, and that helps us in a number of ways. First, it allows us to take a few guesses as to how the virus actually works and point a way towards understanding transmission, which helps us come up with strategies for containment. Secondly, having the viral genome gives us a target to look for when we are looking at diagnostics. It opens the doors to a variety of methods to improve diagnostics and to do so in a way that is potentially very quick.  

Chinese scientists were able to sequence the Covid-19 genome in just ten days. When we sequenced the SARS genome, it took us several weeks.

The third thing is, of course, it provides a number of potential targets for vaccine development and possible drug development. At a very basic level, even just having the coronavirus genome opens up lots of opportunities, and then we layer on top of that the very clever people working on a number of things—for instance how the coronavirus genome interacts with patient genomes and other systems in order to understand why it is that some patients get very, very, very sick and others do not. Those are very important questions and solving those kinds of questions may very well open the door for possible lines of attack in terms of therapy. 


Initial Research Projects Being Funded  

The federal government, right out of the gate, was very quick in trying to respond on a research level to the challenges being created by the coronavirus. Early on [Genome Canada] got involved in a coordinated effort with a variety of other federal organizations including the CIHRNSERC, the Social Sciences and Humanities Council as well as the IDRC, in a coordinated effort to fund the first round of projects that would try to mount a rapid response to the Covid-19 pandemic. A variety of really fascinating projects came out of that.  

The one I’ll focus on is a project we’re funding at the University of Calgary led by Dr. Dylan Pillai, which is really focused on developing rapid diagnostics. And his team is looking to build a portable diagnostic tool that could be handheld—and actually brought to the bedside of quarantined patients—and can be used globally. It is a really innovative approach to developing those tests and we are quite hopeful that that work will yield positive results, as well as the other couple of dozen projects that got seeded across the country.  


Canada’s Research Ecosystem and the Global Response  

It is about where we can contribute most meaningfully. We know that in Canada we have unique challenges—that are posed by our geography, for instance—there may be other unique challenges posed by populations unique to Canada—and so we need to be solving and addressing some of those unique challenges while at the same time contributing to global efforts.  

One of the things about these pandemics, of course, is that as the virus spreads it changes and it mutates, and it takes on potentially different behaviors. We need to make sure that we are contributing globally to data and information sets, so that we can look at not simply what is happening in a single hospital or a single province, but really globally how our experience is comparing to the experience of the United States, Italy, and South Korea.  

We need to make sure that we are contributing globally to data and information sets, so that we can look at not simply what is happening in a single hospital or a single province.

The scientists are better coordinated than a lot of the institutions. We work certainly hard to connect with our international partners, and I have been in touch with my colleagues in other countries. But it is the scientists who are actually on the ground doing the work—they know who they need to speak to, who the expert is that can help them at a given time and who needs to know the results of the experiment they are running. Science really is a community-led activity, and the community is really committed here. And so our job, as funding institutions and so on, is to many ways put wind in their sails. There is a double-sided approach here. On the one hand, we want to demonstrate leadership by helping provide coordination, but at the same time we want to be sure we are providing the scientists the tools they need to address the problem amongst themselves.  

We are mounting a very impressive response globally to this crisis, but the reason we can do that is we have been funding scientists for decades. 

Within that there is a little bit of a lesson—I think it is important for us as a take-home lesson here—is that we are mounting a very impressive response globally to this crisis, but the reason we can do that is we have been funding scientists for decades. Virologists are working away, and training students, and pushing the envelope in terms of technologies and understanding—and when the crisis hits, they are ready to respond. There is both the rapid response element to this that is absolutely essential—but there is also a background level of activity, that we need to make sure that we have, that is healthy and strong so that when crises do come up we actually have a community of scientists or other types of researchers ready to respond and to jump into action.  


Treatment and Cure Development for Covid-19  

Nobody has the definite answer as to when we will find some type of cure or treatment. First what we are going to see, and I am very confident about this, are real increases in our ability to do effective and rapid testing. And that is essential, we really do need quicker testing and so that we can really do widespread testing to a get a better sense of what we are dealing with.  

After that, we will hopefully see significant improvements just in medical treatment of those who are infected by the coronavirus so that we can help reduce mortality—and I think we are going to see that. When it comes to actual vaccine or cure development, these things take time—we hear numbers of 18 months to two years. Having said that, there are some innovative approaches that may well short-circuit that a little bit and may get something a little quicker. There are a number of people looking at repurposing existing drugs—other antivirals, for example. Those tests—we do not know for sure—but it may well be there is some impact from existing treatments that could actually also help provide a shortcut to some kind of treatment.  

Again, this is about having that diverse community approach. You have the researchers who are going to say, ok, I am aiming at the 18-month vaccine and I am going to make sure every day I get us closer to that. And then you have other researchers that say ok, good, if you have that on lockdown, I will take more of a risky approach and try to screen existing drugs, for instance. And then you have others who say ok, if you are all doing that, I am going to look at how we might actually target the human targets to see if we can somehow block the virus. There are a lot of different approaches being taken and our hope and our expectation is that there will be a variety of successes that will help get us closer to actually managing this effectively.  


Will We See Another Pandemic After This One?  

Yes, this will certainly happen again. We are creatures of biology, and it is important—for all of our progress—we remain at the whims of biological process. There have always been human pandemics and there will likely always be human pandemics. Having said that, we are much better positioned today to deal with this outbreak than we were to deal with the SARS outbreak. And we were better positioned to deal with the SARS outbreak than we were to deal with the Spanish flu, and so on and so forth. And so, every time we learn a little more, we get a little better—but the fact is that humans are biological creatures and as such we are prone to the afflictions that have plagued us for centuries.  


Policy and Innovation Lessons to Be Learned  

The areas where I am more comfortable are around the research and application of the research result. The lessons here are that we have a strong, committed, talented community that are ready to respond. That’s phenomenal. I give full marks to the federal and provincial government for acting very quickly in terms of making new funds available and being very open to ideas from the community about how to move forward. That’s all really great.  

Going forward, I think there is a risk—there have been challenges, with regards to sustained funding for what is considered basic or fundamental research, which is basic and fundamental until a crisis like this hits—and suddenly, you are the virologist looking at mechanisms for viral transmission and the science does not seem so arcane anymore. Suddenly, it seems very germane. We need to recognize the value of making good, long-term, sustained investments and that they serve society.  

The second thing I’ll say is that we are living in a world of data, and the healthcare system is not unique in its challenges of managing large quantities of data and moving that data around efficiently and effectively, but also with appropriate controls. Going forward, it will be really important for us to think about how hospitals and research institutions are able to collect data from patients, on viral strains, and then make that data available across provincial and national borders so that we can work collectively together. That is a policy challenge that is well understood and recognized, but it is one that is not as simple to solve as we might hope. 


The Crisis’ Silver Lining  

The silver lining is a reminder of just how strong we are in research. That Canada can be—it is—among the leaders globally, and it is playing an important role in addressing these challenges.

It is hard to look for the silver lining given the challenges we are facing, but I am inspired by the commitment I am seeing among Canadians and people internationally who are coming together to work collectively to try to minimize the impact of the pandemic.  I am thinking about everyone from organizations deciding to self-isolate and work from home, individuals making sure that they are not going to be congregating or giving up trips and activities that they may have well been looking forward to for months or years. 

On top of that, the commitment of workers who do go in every day and continue to work in our nursing rooms, our hospitals and our fast food places. That, to me, brings home the value of community and the commitment that we share in that regard. That is a big silver lining.  

More directly, in terms of my area, the silver lining is a reminder of just how strong we are in research. That Canada can be—it is—among the leaders globally, and it is playing an important role in addressing these challenges. The last several years have been sometimes challenging for science—there is a lot of fake news and misinformation on the web, like anti-vaccination, for example. There have been a lot of challenges in regard to the role science plays in peoples’ everyday lives—but what we are seeing today, is that when it comes to a real global crisis like this, science can lead, and science does lead. It will provide the tools that we can use to try to get out of this difficult time.  


#StayAtHome Top Do’s  

I’ve been working from home, obviously, but using this time to get caught up on some reading. I’ve been actually hanging out with my teenage kids, which is great, and introducing them to a lot of kung fu movies from the 70s and 80s—which has been great. And then Genome Canada has been building a playlist of shut-in music, so that has been providing the soundtrack for a lot of the work we are doing here at our house. 

Rob Annan
President & CEO - Genome Canada

Dr. Rob Annan is President and CEO of Genome Canada. He drives an overarching strategy that promotes the value and potential of genomics in Canada. A Fellow of the Public Policy Forum, he has led projects and convened discussions around research and innovation strategy. His prior experience includes seven years at Mitacs, including as Chief Research Officer and interim CEO, where he drove the development and delivery of policy-driven innovation programs. Dr. Annan volunteers on the Board of Let’s Talk Science, a national charity dedicated to increasing STEM literacy among K-12 students. He has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from McGill University and undergraduate degrees in English from Queen’s University and in Biology from the University of Victoria.


Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization, funded by the Government of Canada that acts as a catalyst for developing and applying genomics and genomic-based technologies to create economic and social benefits for Canadians. It connect ideas and people across public and private sectors to find new uses for genomics; invests in large-scale science and technology to fuel innovation; and, translates discoveries into solutions across key sectors of national importance, including health, agriculture and agri-food, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, the environment, energy and mining.