A pioneer in the fight against HIV/AIDS, star Quebec researcher turns to quest for COVID-19 immunity

After years of helping to lead the global effort to stop the spread of AIDS, McGill prof joins Canadian task force tackling the novel coronavirus.

It's the latest challenge for Catherine Hankins, whose global career began with clashes over condoms

In April, Dr. Catherine Hankins was named to the federal government's task force that is trying to discover a cure for COVID-19. (Submitted by Catherine Hankins )

When Catherine Hankins first arrived in Montreal in 1986, she never expected she'd get into a spat with the provincial health minister.

But eight months into a job in Montreal's public health department she made headlines for doing just that.

The Alberta-born community medicine specialist had moved to Montreal just as a mysterious and little-understood new disease was terrorizing the gay community.

With so little public awareness about HIV/AIDS, and how it was spread, Hankins was asked to prepare a $60,000 public health campaign on the importance of safe sex practices and condom use.

Just days before that campaign was set to launch, however, the province's Liberal health minister, Thérèse Lavoie-Roux, pulled the plug, under pressure from a Catholic lobby group.

Lavoie-Roux was concerned about the condoms that Hankins had included in information packages aimed at high school students. The minister said she would launch her own campaign — one that reflected family values.

In the late 1980s, Hankins helped found CACTUS Montréal, North America's first needle-exchange program. It is still open today. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

"It made me realize that in the Quebec public-health system, at that time, public-health professionals had very little sway," Hankins recalled in a recent interview with CBC Montreal.

She decided to put her new job on the line and organized a clandestine news conference, where she handed out her campaign materials to reporters.

"Everybody came, and I said, 'Here's the TV ad. Here's the radio ad. You don't know where you got them. I need them back in 24 hours,'" Hankins said.

Taking the fight against AIDS from Montreal to the world

That kind of forthright approach to controversial community health issues helped get local media on her side in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Thanks in part to Hankins's initiatives, Montreal became an early leader in the fight against AIDS.

Hankins, for instance, was among the first researchers to link intravenous drug use to the onset of HIV.

In the late 1980s, she began exploring why female inmates at Montreal's Tanguay detention centre were developing the virus. 

A few months into her study, Hankins noticed a pattern: women who had injected drugs tested positive at much higher rates than those who had not.

This realization led her to help create CACTUS Montréal, which in 1989 became North America's first needle-exchange program.

Hankins went on to play a leading role in the international AIDS effort.

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For over a decade, she was the chief scientific adviser for the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2013, she was named to the Order of Canada.

She returned to Quebec a few years ago and resumed teaching at McGill University.

When another mysterious and deadly virus began sweeping the globe earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a task force and promised $1 billion for research into finding a cure and producing treatments. 

He asked Hankins to co-chair the COVID-19 task force, along with Dr. David Naylor, the former dean of medicine at the University of Toronto.

She jumped at the opportunity. "I am a very curious person, I enjoy working with people across all different walks of life, and this work is going to be doing exactly that," Hankins said.

"I enjoy a challenge. I'm curious about the science, and I'm passionate about trying to make a difference if it's possible to make a difference. If I can contribute to that in any way, then I feel compelled to do so."

The immunity task force

Since she was named to the COVID-19 immunity task force last month, Hankins has been meeting with the other members via video conference from her home near Sutton, Que.

She explained that the first step for the task force is to get an antibody test approved and standardized across the country. That will allow scientists to determine whether a person has already been exposed to the virus.

The second step will be figuring out what, exactly, that exposure means for people. It is not yet known whether a person can be reinfected with the virus or how long an immunity would last.

Hankins said the first step for the task force is to get an antibody test approved and standardized across the country. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

"We are all wanting to get this going as fast as we can. It's so important and we want to make sure that we get results that we understand and that can be helpful in making decisions going forward," Hankins said.

The study is expected to last two years and test one million Canadians.

Just as she did with her work on HIV/AIDS, Hankins hopes to test a wide variety of people from all walks of life, in order to get a clearer picture of the virus and how it affects different communities.

"I always thought research was an excuse not to act," she said. "But I realized that if you had rigorous research findings, you could actually get those findings to speak for themselves and then [allow] policy makers to draw the conclusions."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio and CBC's Let's Go.

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