Mobilizing science in the fight against COVID-19

Published On: December 2020Categories: 2020 Featured, Canadian Science Policy MagazineTags:
A picture of a Sikh man over a mountain landscape with the text: Mobilizing science in the fight against covid-19 The Honourable Navdeep Bains Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry


The Honourable Navdeep Bains

Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an enormous challenge for countries around the world, including here in Canada. It has required a mobilization of science, industry and innovation on a scale with few precedents in our lifetimes. 

Many have looked to the Second World War as the last comparable national effort to the scale of what we are witnessing today. At that time, Canada’s great scientific minds came together with industry and government in programs focused on common goals. It saw us push forward with the use of frozen blood serum to save injured troops and the development of the mass production of penicillin. Research programs aimed at protecting our navy led to an increase in skilled radar technicians. These programs had long-term impacts. As an example, because of this groundbreaking research, Canada remains a leader in satellite technology today.

Seventy-five years later, we are facing a problem that requires our collective efforts to overcome. Today it is clearer than ever that our present and future successes, including the health and economic wellbeing of Canadians, depend on relying on research and science-based policy.

Strong collaboration from researchers, industry and the health care system has anchored Canada’s response to the current pandemic. 

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, our government has worked to provide Canada’s researchers and businesses with the support they need to develop tests, treatments, vaccines and other innovative solutions to protect the health and safety of Canadians. Through these efforts, we are working with nearly 3000 companies that have offered their expertise and capacity. Canadian scientists and researchers have spent sleepless nights in their labs and at their desks, helping to contribute to our fight against this disease. Throughout this critical period our government has been there to help.

Since mid-March, more than $1.2 billion in federal support has been committed to a national medical research strategy to fight COVID-19. This includes important investments in the Saskatoon-based Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) to accelerate development of a vaccine against COVID-19 and upgrade their biomanufacturing capacity, as well as in the National Research Council to prepare its Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre in Montreal for the production of vaccines for clinical trials.  

Another example of our support includes a $600 million investment through the Strategic Innovation Fund to support COVID-19 vaccine and therapy clinical trials led by the private sector, and biomanufacturing opportunities. We have complemented this funding with close to $170 million through the federal granting agencies. We have also worked closely with all levels of government through our response to the pandemic, and several of our initiatives have been bolstered by provincial collaborations and contributions. 

Another important example of our investments to support important research in this period is our investment of $40 million in the new Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network (CanCOGeN), led by Genome Canada. This network is helping track the virus, improve patient outcomes, and provide information to public health authorities and decision-makers as they put in place measures to control the pandemic. The initiative will also help ensure that Canada has a sustainable national genomics infrastructure in the event of future pandemics. 

Thanks to our government’s unprecedented investments in fundamental research, beginning well before the pandemic, we are on good footing to focus our efforts on this pressing challenge. From the beginning of our first mandate in 2015, we have invested billions in Canadian science and research. This support included the largest investment in fundamental research in Canadian history. This focus on fundamental science and research meant that our scientists and researchers had a broad base of support going into the pandemic. Canada’s existing expertise and capacity has allowed us to hit the ground running. 

Despite these investments, the COVID-19 pandemic has represented a once in a lifetime challenge for government and public health officials. Our government’s strategy to combat this pandemic continues to rely on scientific expertise throughout our decision-making. Over the past few months, we have sought out reliable information on how best to manage the pandemic. We have relied heavily on researchers and scientists, who are the driving forces spearheading Canada’s critical COVID-19 advisory bodies, such as the Vaccine and Therapeutic Task Forces. 

Since June, scientific experts and industry leaders have been providing advice to our government on how to target our investments in projects with the greatest chance of success. Following the Vaccine Task Force’s expert advice, we have announced an investment of nearly $56 million to support clinical trials at VBI Vaccines’ Ottawa research facility. 

On October 23rd, we announced an investment of up to $173 million through the Strategic Innovation Fund in Quebec City-based Medicago to advance their virus-like particle vaccine, developed on the company’s unique plant-based production platform, through clinical trials. The project, valued at a total of $428 million, will also establish a large-scale vaccine and antibody production facility to increase Canada’s domestic biomanufacturing capacity. That same day, we also announced an investment of up to $18.2 million in Vancouver-based biotechnology company Precision NanoSystems Incorporated (PNI) through the Strategic Innovation Fund. This investment will support a $24.27-million project to help advance the development of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate through pre-clinical studies and clinical trials. 

Further to these investments, we also laid out our support of up to $23.2 million in funding through the National Research Council of Canada to advance six Canadian COVID-19 vaccine candidates in various stages of clinical trials.

More investments in this critical area will follow, supported by the continuing work of the task forces. We base these decisions on expert scientific advice, which has allowed us to prioritize which opportunities to pursue based on the best evidence available. 

We know that good policy and decision-making must be based on strong and valid data. Statistics Canada has embraced the challenge presented by the pandemic by accelerating data collection to help the country respond to, and recover from, the social and economic impacts of COVID-19. Statistics Canada recently committed to publishing disaggregated data to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on specific groups; from the economic impact among visible minority groups to social and economic concerns of new Canadians, this data will ensure that decisions taken by our government will support the work of our world-class scientists and researchers.

As our historically strong industries grapple with the effects of COVID-19, Canadians are looking to their government for leadership. I want Canadians to know that we will continue to refine our approach and work hand-in-hand with the academic and scientific communities to realize the potential that science and innovation hold for our common future and in the fight against COVID-19.