Manitoba announces $5M for COVID-19 research, including clinical drug trials
$700K will go toward trial that will test hydroxychloroquine as possible COVID-19 treatment
The province introduced a new $5-million research fund Wednesday, some of which will support clinical trials for drugs that may be possible treatments for COVID-19.
More than $3.5 million will be put toward clinical and applied research, including $700,000 for a COVID-19 clinical trial, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said.
Dr. Ryan Zarychanski, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, is leading the clinical trial. He told reporters via teleconference that several drugs will be tested, including hydroxychloroquine — which U.S. President Donald Trump has touted as a "game-changer" in treating COVID-19.
Zarychanski already has one clinical trial underway, which is testing whether or not hydroxychloroquine — a drug approved by Health Canada to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus — can prevent contracting COVID-19 after exposure to the virus that causes it, and whether the drug can be used to keep symptoms from worsening for those who have the illness.
"[Hydroxychloroquine has] gotten a lot of press because of a little bit of decrees that have occurred south of the border," Zarychanski said.
"But we do not know if these drugs are effective, if they're worth our investment, and if they're safe to give to everyone."
He said there is some "pretty exciting" data that is showing the drug interferes with how the virus latches onto a person, but more work must be done.
"What we can't do is rely on the early data that fuels the enthusiasm that's created some of the emotion and hype around the world," he said.
"All that is anecdote and testimony, and that's not a replacement for good clinical trials, and that's what this money in Manitoba will allow us to conduct — so we'll get the right answer, to give the right treatment to the people in Manitoba and beyond."
People in Manitoba, Alberta and Quebec who have tested positive for COVID-19, those who have been exposed to a household member who has the illness, or health-care workers at high risk of being exposed to a COVID-19 case are eligible to participate in the trials.
So far there have been 500 volunteers for the current trial, Zarychanski said, and results of the drug's effects on early disease should be ready in "the next few weeks."
Zarychanski's team also plans to test five or six other drugs over the coming weeks. The hope is to get results within weeks to months, he said, so they can develop "an interim therapy that could reduce mortality."
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There is currently no cure or vaccine for COVID-19. Based on what he's heard from other experts, Zarychanski estimates it will be at least another year after clinical trials are finished before a vaccine is developed.
Meanwhile, the province is giving $500,000 of new research money to "industry and philanthropic sources" that are supporting other ongoing trials based in Manitoba, but that have sites in other parts of Canada or the world, Friesen said.
Another million dollars is going toward innovation projects, such as the development of diagnostic tools, the minister said.
"We've learned a great deal about this virus that we did not know even a few months ago," said Friesen, but "there are many more questions to be answered."
The fund announced Wednesday, he said, "will help contribute to the world's understanding of the virus and make important strides towards vaccines, treatments, and possible changes to how our health-care system operates, to better combat COVID-19."
As of Wednesday, three people in Manitoba with COVID-19 have died, but 69 have recovered. The number of active cases — patients who are still displaying symptoms — is 149.
'We will be moving as quickly as possible'
Tracey Maconachie, board chair of Research Manitoba — a provincial funding agency and a partner in the new COVID-19 fund — said there will be an application process available within the next week, after which Research Manitoba will start reviewing the pitches.
"We will be moving as quickly as possible, keeping in mind good science," said Maconachie.
Once projects are approved and funding models are established, Research Manitoba will put "early milestones" in place, requiring researchers to report their findings more frequently, and ensuring that a stronger connection is developed between researchers and the province's incident command centre, said Maconachie.
"Often with clinical trials, because there are longer timelines, these only happen every three to six months," she said.
"Instead, in this situation, we're actually going to have the researchers reporting back in a much more timely fashion. In some cases that'll be weekly, in some cases it'll be monthly."
Local researchers and senior officials within the Manitoba health-care system have already identified several new research projects, the province says, including projects focused on better understanding of how the disease is developing in the province, and how the health system needs to react to various complications.
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