Rob Annan
President & CEO - Genome Canada

Canada’s Research Ecosystem & The Response to the Coronavirus

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, 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.

Topics Covered:

  • Canada’s Ability to Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic
  • Healthcare and Research Priorities Canada Must Focus On
  • Stakeholders Who Must be Involved in the Response & Key Actions
  • The Value of Genomics in Fighting the Coronavirus
  • Initial Research Projects Being Funded
  • Canada’s Research Ecosystem & the Global Response
  • Treatment and Cure Development for COVID-19
  • Will We See Another Pandemic After This One?
  • Policy and Innovation Lessons to be Learned
  • The Crisis’ Silver Lining
  • #StayAtHome Top Do’s


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. So 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 who sequenced the SARS genome back in 2003 and that group and many others are using what we learned from that case to tackle the coronavirus that we have today.

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 so obviously we need to make sure we are making a lot of investments in protective equipment, safety protocols, treatment processes and so on. So that is obviously the number one area of focus. 

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

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 its important that we get that work started now and there are potentially areas where we can hopefully find some shortcuts to speed those up.

Stakeholders Who Must Be Involved in the Response & 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 a number of collaborations on the 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. So 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. I think there’s 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 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, so 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. With the SARS genome it took ten 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 to towards understanding transmission which helps us come up with strategies for containment and so on. Secondly, having the viral genome gives us a target to look for when we are looking at diagnostics. So it opens the doors to a variety of methods to improve diagnostics and to do so in a way that is potentially very quick.

The third thing is of course it provides a number of potential targets for vaccine development and possible drug development. So at a very basic level even just having the coronavirus genome opens up lots of opportunities and then we layer on top of that we have very of clever people working on a number of things,  you know 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 don’t. Those are very important questions and solving those kind of questions may very well open the door for possible lines of attack in terms of therapy and so on.

Initial Research Projects Being Funded

The federal government right out fo the gate was very quick to respond on a research level to the challenges being created by the coronavirus. Early on we got involved in a coordinated effort with a variety of other federal organizations including the CIHR, NSERC, 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 an portable diagnostic tool that could be hand held and actually brought to the bed side of quarantined patients and can be used globally. Its a really innovative approach to developing those tests and we are quite hopeful that that work will yield positive results, as well as a number of other projects that got seeded across the country.

Canada’s Research Ecosystem & The Global Response 

It’s 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 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 mutates, and it takes on potentially new behaviours. We need to make sure we are contributing to globally to data sets, information sets, so that we can look at not simply whats happening in a single hospital or a single province but really globally how is our experience comparing to the experience of the United States, Italy, South Korea and so on. 

The scientists are better coordinated than a lot of the institutions. We work certainly hard to connect with our international partners and I’ve been in touch with my colleagues in other countries but its the scientists who are actually on the ground doing the work. Who know who they need to speak to, who the expert is that can help them at a given time, who needs to know the results of the experiment they are running. And so science really is a community-led activity, and the community is really committed here. And so are job, as funding institutions and so on is to many ways put wind in their sails. There is two kind of 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.

Within that there’s 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 who 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. So there is both the rapid response element to this that is absolutely essential, but there is also just 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 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 can really do widespread testing to a get a better sense of what we are dealing with. After that I think we will see um, you know hopefully, we will 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 18 months to two years. Having said that there are some innovative approaches that may well short-circuit that a little bit and make it a little quicker. And there are number of people looking at repurposing existing drugs for instance. Other antivirals and so on. Those tests we don’t 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’m going to just 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 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 say target the human targets to see if we can somehow block the virus. So 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 the spread.

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. So 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 everytime 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 really are around the research area and the application of the research result. I’d say that 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 prov 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 whats considered basic research or fundamental research which is basic and fundamental until a crisis like this hits, and suddenly you’re the virologist looking at mechanisms for viral transmission, the science doesn’t seem so arcane anymore it suddenly it seems very germane. And so we need to recognize the value of making good long-term sustained investments and that it serves society.

The second thing I’ll say is I think 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, effectively but also with appropriate controls and so on. So I think going forward for me, I think it  is going to be really important for us think about how hospitals and research institutions are able to collect data from patients and using and from the various, here viral strains and so on.. And make that data available across provincial borders and national borders so that we can actually work collectively together. That’s 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 

It is hard to look sometimes for the silver lining given the challenge we are facing but certainly, just personally, I am inspired by the commitment i am seeing among Canadians and internationally to come together and to work collectively to try to minimize the impact of the pandemic. And here 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, giving up trips and activities that they may have well been looking forward to for months or years. So then the commitment. And then on top of that the commitment of workers that do go in every day and continue to work in our nursing rooms, our hospitals and our fast food places. So I think that that to me it brings home the value of community and the commitment that we share in that regard. I think 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 its playing an important role in addressing these challenges. And the last several years have been sometimes challenging for science, and there is a lot of you know, the sort of fake news and misinformation on the web, and you know anti-vaccination. There there has been a lot of challenges in regards to the role science plays in peoples everyday lives, but we are seeing today is when it comes to a real global crisis like this science can lead and science does lead, and will provide the tools that we then can use to try to get out of this difficult time. 

I’ve been working from home obviously but using this time to get caught up on some reading, so doing a lot of reading. I’ve been actually hanging out with my teenage kids which is great and introducing them to a lot of we’ve actually been watching old 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.