British Columbia

B.C. research team testing HIV medication to combat COVID-19

New federal funding has been announced for researchers at B.C. universities to help with a global COVID-19 response. But it's not all about developing a cure.

Team is among several to receive federal grant money for coronavirus research

A medical worker wears a protective suit in an isolated ward of a hospital in Caidian district following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China on Feb. 6. (China Daily/Reuters)

The federal government is committing an additional $20 million in funding for research into the COVID-19 outbreak after previously pledging nearly $7 million in February; several B.C.-based researchers are among those receiving grants. 

Researchers from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of the Fraser Valley, and Royal Roads University had projects selected to receive the two-year grants, which can amount to $1 million for medical countermeasures, and $500,000 for social and policy countermeasures. 

"I think this whole collection of researchers makes for a vibrant community and a lot of knowledge sharing," said Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a UBC associate professor in pediatrics, who is leading a project in search of a treatment.

Murthy is organizing randomized clinical trials in Canada for patients infected with COVID-19 to see which medication works best to combat the disease.  

Flight attendants wear masks while travelling through Vancouver International Airport on Jan. 28. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"The first drug we're testing is a medication that we use for HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS so it's a medication that we've had for 20 years now and it's been proven very safe, and a bunch of people have thought that it would be effective against coronavirus," said Murthy.

"It works on it in a lab setting, but we don't know if it works in a real life patient setting, and so what we're hoping to do is run a study to see if it does work in that real life setting."

Murthy says regulatory approvals for their clinical trials are happening right now, and they hope to operate in 30 to 40 hospitals across Canada.

Social scientists examine other aspects

But it's not just laboratory doctors who will receive federal funding in the global response against COVID-19. Social scientists and researchers will be looking at completely different aspects of the outbreak.

Cindy Jardine, a Canada Research Chair in health and community at University of the Fraser Valley, and Yue Quian, an associate professor of sociology at UBC are two researchers who received funding for their projects. 

Quian's project will look at how people and communities react to and cope mentally with quarantine by studying a group of people affected by the quarantine in the city of Wuhan, China, which has effectively been shut down since Jan. 23. 

The shutdown of the city — which has a population of 11 million and is considered the epicentre of COVID-19 — is thought to be the largest quarantine in human history.

The research has a personal resonance for Quian. She was born and raised in Wuhan, and her father is living alone in the city under quarantine.  

"I try to contact him very regularly to provide some virtual company to him," she said. "[But] the people in Wuhan now ... they seem to have developed some daily routine to cope with these quarantine lifestyle."

Jardine's project will look at the role of travel in the transmission of COVID-19, specifically people travelling back to their countries of origin, and potentially what kind of communication is necessary to adequately confer risk. 

"We're focusing on how people ... decide to act on information and that's very much determined by the cultural lens in which they view information and decide what's important to them or not," Jardine said. 

Quian says projects like these provide important context to the headlines.

"A lot of times when we think about these contagious disease epidemics, we think about how many people died, how many new confirmed cases we have, but as the WHO has pointed out, we need to remember those are people not numbers," she said.

With files from On The Coast