Editorial: Canadian Science Policy Centre
(Pandemic special feature)
The Government of Canada is taking immediate, significant, and decisive action to help Canada and the world in this new reality marked by the significant and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has the capacity and expertise to help our country in this time of need.
We are ready to respond, as we have been since our inception: influenced by the need to build a new country, and respond to two world wars and the Great Depression. Our early research focused on industrial, military, and natural resource development in response to those turbulent times. Since then, our researchers continue to dedicate their careers to solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges. In healthcare alone, we fostered innovative breakthroughs like George Klein’s electric wheelchair, which helped veterans of the Second World War regain independence; John A. Hopps’ discovery of the electrical cardiac pacemaker; and Harold Jennings’ meningitis C vaccine, which has been saving the lives of countless infants and children for more than 30 years.
Today, we are working hard to protect the health of Canadians and our workforce, and support our clients, collaborators, and Canadian businesses so they, too, can carry on in these difficult times, continue providing essential services to Canadians, contribute to the fight against COVID-19, and ensure our country can put its best foot forward when we emerge from this global crisis.
PROTECTING OUR WORKFORCE
Our top priority is the health and safety of our employees, stakeholders, and communities. Without them, we would not be able to do what we do. One of the most important actions we are taking as a group to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities is staying home.
The NRC started shifting operations to telework on March 16; as of March 27, an unprecedented 90 percent of us are working remotely, which took great effort from many hands to achieve. The roughly 10 percent of employees who remain onsite are playing key roles by keeping our facilities safe and secure, monitoring equipment so we have the data required to continue working offsite, receiving important shipments of material, and— perhaps most urgently now— working on COVID-19-related projects. We are working every day to keep these essential employees safe so they can continue to make it possible for us to help our clients, collaborators, and country move forward.
PROTECTING THE HEALTH OF CANADIANS
The NRC exists to bring research and innovative solutions in response to societal and economic challenges. The importance of our work was brought to the forefront when the Prime Minister announced Canada’s plans to mobilize industry (1) and science (2) to fight COVID-19. We are now taking to our laboratories and mobilizing on a wide range of projects and initiatives, including:
1.THE COVID-19 CHALLENGES PROCUREMENT PROGRAM (3)
Our Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) is building on its relationships with thousands of Canada’s most innovative small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to expedite technology development and quickly bring solutions to the market or for government procurement. NRC IRAP and Innovative Solutions Canada launched calls for proposals (4) to Canadian SMEs to find and fund the development of solutions that address current and future COVID-19-related needs.
More than 1,100 Canadian companies with promising technology relevant to the COVID-19 effort registered with us to participate, and NRC IRAP hosted “pitch sessions” for promising applicants to present their companies, teams, innovations, and technologies for consideration before a panel of experts. Successful applicants will soon receive funding to develop a proof of concept for their solution, following which additional funding will be allocated to those with the best concepts so they can develop a working prototype.
2.THE PANDEMIC RESPONSE CHALLENGE PROGRAM (5)
The NRC has a long tradition of collaborating with the public and private sectors, and bringing together experts to collaborate on solving big challenges. Our newest challenge program will form teams of researchers from across government, academia, and industry to address challenges and accelerate R&D in priority areas in the fight against COVID-19, with funding available for eligible participants to help cover research costs. The Pandemic Response Challenge Program is structured around four main research pillars: rapid detection and diagnosis; therapeutics and vaccine development; digital health; and enabling adaptive responses. Projects under the fourth pillar are already underway on sanitizing and certifying N95 masks, as well as producing reagents and other consumables needed to secure Canada’s supply chain for diagnostic testing.
3.INCREASING BIOMANUFACTURING CAPACITY AND VACCINE DEVELOPMENT (6)
We are working with our partners to develop and scale up production of potential vaccine candidates against COVID-19. The Government of Canada’s $15 million investment in our biomanufacturing facility in Montréal will allow us to establish Good Manufacturing Practice compliance in months— as opposed to years— to ensure we are ready to scale up production once a viable vaccine is found. An additional $29 million was recently allocated (7) to allow the research centre to begin the second phase of critical upgrades in view of preparing to produce vaccines for clinical trials. We are also in discussions to assist our collaborators in advancing vaccine candidates to clinical trials in Canada.
The NRC also has a unique opportunity, given our range of expertise and capacity, to support businesses of all sizes, academics, and governments in their efforts against this devastating virus. Our stakeholders are organizing themselves to manufacture ventilators, mix enzymes for test kits, test mask quality, and explore alternate sterilization techniques for personal protective equipment— among many other projects that seem to multiply every day. We are proud to continue providing our best advice and technical support to help them.
SUPPORTING CANADIAN BUSINESS
While many businesses are able to retool their processes and facilities to respond to COVID-19, there are many more who are struggling with supply chain disruptions, cash flow issues, a collapse in demand and a lack of access to COVID-19 business support. In addition to advising and supporting our SME clients, as NRC IRAP has been doing for more than 70 years, the government’s recent $250 million injection into NRC IRAP (8) allowed us to launch the Innovation Assistance Program. This program will help protect the next generation of Canadian entrepreneurs and the people they employ so we can have the best chance at emerging from this pandemic in a position to move forward.
The world we were in little more than one month ago is vastly different from the one in which we find ourselves today. The key to Canada’s response, and our strength as a nation, is collaboration and application. Developing therapies, vaccines, and industrial capacity at home requires the efforts of a broad array of experts across government and industry. Working together to achieve shared goals enables us to turn research and ideas into viable solutions to our most pressing problems.
This must now be our focus. If we are to be successful in the fight against COVID-19, this has to be a truly collective effort as we do everything in our power to change this world for the better.
I know we can, together.
Canadian research and collaboration is key to Canada’s COVID-19 response
Editorial: Canadian Science Policy Centre