It goes without saying that these are uncertain times. But Canadians can find some reassurance knowing that our country is a world leader when it comes to health-related genomics research. In 2003, Canadian researchers spearheaded the sequencing of the SARS genome. Today that group is joined by many other talented research teams across the country in tackling COVID-19.
While the most pressing priorities are the care of patients and the safety of front-line workers, a variety of research targets are simultaneously being tackled. The development of rapid testing, gene sequencing (viral and host), serology tests, clinical trials, treatments, therapeutics and vaccines are all under immediate examination. In equipping Canada’s research community with new funding initiatives, the federal and provincial governments are positioning Canada to play a leading role in all these areas.
So too are collaborations with industry partners that can produce solutions to address critical gaps. These combined efforts have been impressive and show a community-driven response being led by world-class researchers who are openly sharing their information and collaborating across borders.
The fast-moving field of genomics is central to much of this work. It only took 10 days for Chinese scientists to sequence the genome of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19. This rapid sequencing ability helps us understand how the virus works, sheds light on modes of transmission and allows us to generate strategies for containment and drug and vaccine development.
Genomics researchers are also looking at how SARS-CoV-2 interacts with patient genomes to understand why some patients get very sick and others do not. This information will help steer us toward therapies. Alongside national efforts in the UK and the United States, Genome Canada is leading a pan-Canadian consortium involving academic researchers, provincial public health agencies, the National Microbiology Lab and the major gene sequencing centres across the country for COVID-19 genome sequencing from virus to patient. This initiative will ensure better data coordination, information sharing, and a variety of analyses to inform Canada’s response to virus containment, treatment and long-term management. Getting this data in place now will help collate the data we need today and ensure we are better prepared for future outbreaks.
And thanks to the federal government’s quick response in supporting new research efforts, Genome Canada was able to get involved early as part of a coordinated effort with other organizations including CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC, CRCC and IDRC. Together we’ve invested $54.2 million in funding a first round of 99 fascinating Canadian research projects looking at medical, social and policy countermeasures to help stem the spread of the virus (1).
Among other efforts, Genome Canada is funding work at the University of Calgary led by Dr. Dylan Pillai in developing rapid diagnostics (2). The goal is a handheld testing device that could be brought to a patient’s bedside and eventually deployed globally. Genome Canada, in partnership with six regional genome centres, also launched a regional genomics initiative to catalyze rapid response solutions across the country (3). Genome BC and Génome Québec also hit the ground running, in partnership with their provincial governments, with additional strategic calls to their genomics communities (4),(5). An additional $40 million in funding was announced to launch the Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGeN) in partnership with the six regional Genome Centres, national and provincial public health labs, genome sequencing centres through CGEn, hospitals, universities and the private sector (6).
The reason Canada’s research community can do so much during a pandemic is because Canada has been funding scientists for decades. When the crisis hit, they were ready to respond.
We need to ensure that Canada always has a community of researchers who are ready to jump into action. Challenges in sustained funding for fundamental research are well-known. But basic and fundamental research clearly demonstrate their value when a crisis vaults their findings into relevancy. Suddenly the virologist’s research into mechanisms for viral transmission doesn’t look so arcane. The value of thoughtful and long-term investments in science serves society even if we can’t predict exactly when and how.
In terms of what comes next, we will soon see increases in our ability to do rapid and widespread testing for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. With the help of genome sequencing from virus to patient, we are hopeful we will see significant improvements in the medical treatment of those who are infected, which will help reduce mortality.
When it comes to vaccines and cures, these things take more time. As has often been said, we could be looking at 12-18 months. There are some efforts being made to shortcut that timeline, including repurposing existing drugs. We don’t yet know whether this will work. But solutions all go back to that community approach: some researchers are working on the long-term 18-month plan for eradication of the virus, others are taking a more accelerated approach of using screening drugs in the short-term, still others are looking at ways of blocking the virus in humans. A variety of measures and approaches will get us closer to managing this pandemic.
We must also remember that this is not only a medical crisis. There are enormous impacts occurring in our social fabric, particularly in our collective mental health and well-being. This will almost certainly be exacerbated in the weeks and months ahead. A variety of supports from our healthcare systems and the broader social infrastructure is required. We’re also at the beginning of what will likely be a very serious and very sustained economic downturn. We need everyone to think – within their areas of expertise and agency – about how they can be part of a Team Canada approach to address major impacts beyond the virus itself.
Is there a silver lining? Personally, I’m inspired by the commitment of Canadians and people across the globe who are coming together to minimize the impact of the pandemic. We’re working from home, cancelling plans to get together, making all the necessary sacrifices for our collective well-being. Every day I’m impressed by the frontline workers in our hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, truck stops and take-out restaurants. To me, this brings home the value of community and the commitment that we all share in a time of crisis.
In my area of work, the silver lining is also the reminder of how strong science is in Canada and that we are a global leader in addressing this pandemic and preparing for the next one, as well as being part of the solution for economic recovery. In a time of widespread misinformation, anti-vaccine propaganda and other challenges to science, we are seeing today that when it comes to a real global challenge like this, science leads. And genomics science and innovation will continue to lead as we find our way out of this very difficult situation.