Nova Scotia

Dalhousie researchers get $1.9M to study coronavirus

Three researchers at Dalhousie University are getting federal funding to research different aspects of the novel coronavirus.

Research will focus on reducing ER stress, addressing social implications

Three teams at Dalhousie University have been awarded a total of $1.9 million to study coronavirus. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Three researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax have been awarded a total of $1.9 million to help research the coronavirus and its wider societal impacts.

The research areas include developing a device to gauge the severity of the illness, examining the role of public health policy and addressing the spread of misinformation.

This funding is a portion of a total $27-million government investment in coronavirus research across the country announced Friday by federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu. 

Dr. David Kelvin, an immunologist in Dalhousie's Faculty of Medicine, is leading a project to develop a device that would determine whether patients have a mild or severe case of COVID-19.

Kelvin said his 26-person international research team will conduct a series of studies used to determine how to categorize patients in the early stages of the disease.

He said the aim is to reduce the stress on emergency rooms.

"Our experience in China was that ... they were faced with thousands of people who were lined up requesting medical attention," he said.

"That surge … put tremendous stress on the [emergency] room and also on the hospital, because they have a limited number of hospital beds for admission, and they have even fewer hospital beds for ICU or special treatment."

Dr. David Kelvin's research team will focus on developing a device that will be able to tell if a person presenting with the disease will have a mild or severe case. (Submitted by David Kelvin)

By developing a device or biological marker to quickly identify patients who could develop severe symptoms or require ICU admission, they could be classified and given priority for those beds, said Kelvin.

Kelvin is working with the Canadian COVID-19 Research Network, which has researchers from China, Vietnam, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, the U.S. and Canada.

The team received $1 million in federal funding.

Kelvin added that he's glad the government is investing in coronavirus research.

"We did go through quite a dramatic time in 2002, 2003 with SARS, and I think that taught us valuable lessons to be prepared," he said.

"As far as the seriousness of this, I don't think we should underestimate it at all."

Understanding public health policies

Not all the research is focusing on clinical response to the disease. 

Dr. Scott Halperin, a professor of pediatrics, microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie, is leading a team studying COVID-19's impacts on public policy.

"So, looking at public health policy, how it's formulated, and how it intersects with the population and the people who the policy affects," he said.

This could include looking at restrictive measures like quarantines, which can harm some people financially and socially more than others.

The goal, said Halperin, is to come up with ways to improve the formation of public health policy by understanding how communities and individuals affected by it can get involved.

Dr. Scott Halperin's research team will use their federal funding to look at policies around COVID-19. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

Halperin said he's working with a team of more than a dozen faculty members in Canada, Bangladesh, and China. He said the team will look at health-care providers, policy-makers, people who have been recently infected, people who are at risk of infection, and members of the general public in their research.

"Policy is really one of the main ways that we're going to be able to control the infection — either contain it, or if we can't contain it, to mitigate its responses," he said.

"The general public who have to follow these policies need to be confident that these policies are made with their best interests in mind and that their thoughts and concerns are addressed."

He said the team will also look at how the media interacts with policy, and how they strike the balance "between making people aware and making people overly concerned."

The research team will have a budget of $500,000.

Misinformation and social implications

A third Dalhousie researcher will study how to address stigmas and misinformation surrounding COVID-19.

Jeanna Parsons Leigh, a medical sociologist and assistant professor at Dalhousie's Faculty of Health, is looking to better understand the factors contributing to public knowledge and perceptions of COVID-19.

Parsons Leigh could not be reached for comment, but according to a news release from Dalhousie University, this understanding can help develop strategies to combat fear and misinformation.

Her team was awarded $400,000.

With files from Brooklyn Currie