Dal and NSHA researchers receive $1.1M from Government of Canada to study COVID‑19

- June 26, 2020

(File photo: Danny Abriel)
(File photo: Danny Abriel)

Researchers from Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Health Authority are leading projects which received a $1.1 million investment from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Research Nova Scotia as part of a May 2020 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity.

The funding opportunity is a partnership between the CIHR, the International Development Research Centre (IRDC), the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, Alberta Innovates, the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, Research Manitoba, the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation, and Research Nova Scotia (RNS). It is supporting clinical trials, observational studies, implementation science and other relevant study designs to scale-up promising existing projects, reorient current research, and initiate new rapid response research to address COVID-19 in the identified research areas that include understanding the safety, efficacy, effectiveness, ethics and implementation of:

  • Vaccines, diagnostics, or therapeutics;
  • Clinical management and health system interventions; and
  • Social, policy, and public health responses and related indirect consequences

The announcement was made Thursday, June 25, 2020 by the Honourable Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health. A total of $109 million was invested in 139 research teams.

“We are very proud to have researchers from Dalhousie University continue to play a key role in the global response to the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Alice Aiken, vice-president research and innovation at Dalhousie. “The evidence they are building through their innovative work will aid in the design of economic and social policies and interventions that will help mitigate the significant impact of this pandemic.”

Highlights of successfully funded projects:

Dr. Emily Marshall

PUPPY Study - Problems Coordinating and Accessing Primary Care for Attached and Unattached Patients Exacerbated During the COVID-19 Pandemic Year: A Longitudinal Mixed Methods Study with Rapid Reporting and Planning for the Road Ahead

COVID-19 has caused significant changes in primary care. In Canada, many walk-in clinics and family practices have closed. Pharmacies remain open but with restrictions on patient interactions. Other major changes in care (e.g., virtual care, reduced referrals) have been made to respect public health and emergency orders. During these times with significant restrictions, patients can be unclear or unaware of how to get the right care, at the right time, from the right provider.

Understanding the rapid changes in primary care and how to navigate these is challenging for everyone, but more so for people without a regular primary care provider to help guide them. The proposed study builds on existing research with an experienced team. The team will work to understand critical gaps in primary care access and coordination by comparing data from before, during, and after the pandemic. Multiple sources of data will be used such as policy makers, primary care providers, patients, waitlist data, healthcare billings, and prescribing data. The results are critical for strengthening primary care during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Rudolf Uher

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadians living with mental illness, and their children

Deterioration of mental health may be the most serious consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social isolation, reduced activity, lack of opportunities, unemployment and financial uncertainty are known triggers of depressive episodes and suicides. Those living with pre-existing mental illness, and their children, may be among the most vulnerable to the indirect consequences of the pandemic.

The healthy development of children depends on the health of their parents and children of parents with serious forms of mental illness are at increased risk of adverse outcomes. Now, with closed schools and reduced access to external resources, the wellbeing of children may be linked to the mental health of their parents even more tightly than before. This project will examine the exposure, coping and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in over 1000 adults and children from 300 families, including 200 families where one or both parents are living with mental illness. Their findings will be used to inform public health strategies and mental health service provision and make them sensitive to the needs of families, including those where parents are living with mental illness.

“This funding announcement speaks to the excellence of our Nova Scotian researchers who have worked tirelessly to improve health care in the face of unprecedented challenges,” says Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy, Vice President, Research, Innovation & Discovery and CNE at NSHA. “I am confident the work of Drs. Marshall and Uher will shape our understanding of COVID-19 as we continue to take a leading role in our national response.”

Dr. Catherine Mah

Dietary change during COVID-19: A population-based study in Atlantic Canada to build evidence for government economic and social policy responses

The CELLAR (COVID-related Eating Limitations and Latent dietary effects in the Atlantic Region) study, led by Dr. Catherine L. Mah, Canada Research Chair in Healthy Populations, will investigate the nutritional consequences of how we eat during the pandemic in Atlantic Canada.

COVID-19 is a looming nutrition problem and policy problem for the Atlantic provinces, where diet-related health risks are among the highest in Canada. The consumer food environment has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many families and food system sectors are facing economic precarity of unexpected scale and duration.  

Through CELLAR, the research team will carry out an in-depth analysis of how COVID-19 is affecting Atlantic residents' diets and nutrition. The results of CELLAR will produce much-needed regional evidence for social and economic policies that support healthy eating for all--during and after the pandemic.  

Dr. Christopher Richardson

Expression and Purification of COVID19 Virus Spike (S) Protein for Diagnostics and Vaccines

Dr. Richardson’s work focuses on the spike protein (S) of the coronavirus which mediates attachment and entry into the host cell and is the major target of neutralizing antibodies that block infections.  The first goal of this research is to generate large quantities of the S protein is a mammalian expression system that can be easily scaled up for large scale production. The protein generated in this procedure can be used to produce immune diagnostic kits as well as serve as a component of subunit vaccines or booster shots directed against COVID-19.

The second aim describes the generation of recombinant vesicular stomatitis (VSV) viruses that express the Spike (S) protein derived from COVID-19 virus. In the first experiments, VSV genome vector is modified to contain coronavirus S protein in place of its G glycoprotein which normally mediates attachment and entry of the host cell. The S protein changes the tropism of the recombinant virus and provides a new antigen target for the immune system.  VSV is highly attenuated in human cells and is tightly controlled by the host antiviral interferon system. It is also the vaccine vector for the highly effective Ebola virus vaccine. The diagnostic and vaccine reagents developed in this proposal will be distributed and tested by colleagues at the Canadian Center of Vaccinology (Halifax) and VIDO-InterVac Vaccine Cenre in Saskatoon.

The final aim is to use the reagents generated in the proposal to study cell receptors for COVID19 coronavirus and study infections in susceptible cells using model viruses of lower risk and pathogenicity.

Research Nova Scotia is providing support to other regional researchers who are working on a project led by the University of Alberta. Dr. Roy Duncan, Dr. Scott Halperin and Dr. Alyson Kelvin from Dalhousie University will rapidly develop, validate and clinically evaluate a novel DNA vaccine against COVID-19. Clinical trials will be initiated at the Canadian center for Vaccinology in Halifax within 8 weeks of project initiation, with the goal of a commercial release within one year.

“Research Nova Scotia was excited to partner with CIHR, IDRC, and other provincial funders to support regional COVID researchers working across the country,” says Stefan Leslie, CEO of Research Nova Scotia. “It is important that we support our researchers on these large-scale, national projects.”

For more information, visit the CIHR website.


All comments require a name and email address. You may also choose to log-in using your preferred social network or register with Disqus, the software we use for our commenting system. Join the conversation, but keep it clean, stay on the topic and be brief. Read comments policy.

comments powered by Disqus