Pandemic hub: Meet the Ottawa researchers investigating COVID-19

Ottawa researchers are contributing to our collective knowledge of COVID-19 — from pushing forward vaccine development to learning how the virus is changing our economy.

Nation's capital becomes a hotspot for understanding the virus

Dr. Carolina Ilkow is a key part of The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, using lessons learned in the hunt for cancer cures to seek a potential vaccine for COVID-19. (The Ottawa Hospital)

Ottawa researchers are contributing to our collective knowledge of COVID-19 — from pushing forward vaccine development to learning how the virus is changing our economy.

Over the past month, CBC Radio's All In A Day has interviewed scientists and academics from a range of fields who've shifted the focus of their work to COVID-19 during the pandemic. 

Here are some of the local researchers adapting their laboratories to join that global effort.

Marc-André Langlois

Marc-André Langlois, a molecular virologist at the University of Ottawa, and his lab received funding to study COVID-19, from developing a nasal spray vaccine to producing antibodies with the help of local llama farms.

"There is a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations," Langlois told All In A Day host Alan Neal.

Dr. Marc-André Langlois plans to use the cells from llamas to create antibodies whose proteins may make a nasal vaccine for humans possible. (Patrick Louiseize/Radio-Canada)

Langlois, who normally studies HIV, said he and his team have been working "relentlessly" on COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

In his mind, the best-case scenario is if an antiviral treatment can be developed to help prevent deaths before a vaccine rolls out.

Hashmat Khan

Hashmat Khan, who chairs the economics department at Carleton University, is looking at Spain's experience during he pandemic to measure how physical distancing affects economies.

He hopes his research will be useful to the Bank of Canada and the federal finance department as the country seeks ways to boost the economy.

Khan chose to study Spain because it implemented one of the strictest physical distancing policies in the world.

"The Spanish experience tells us that these policies have worked and are working," he said. "And the big issue now is how we reopen the economy — and that's where the model can actually tell us what can happen."

Khan and his team are now developing a macroeconomic model which he hopes will help governments select the right income supports and subsidies to maximize stimulus programs.

Dr. Carolina Ilkow

Dr. Carolina Ilkow, an assistant professor at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, normally studies viruses that help fight cancer.

She's now using safe, live viruses, similar to those used to deliver the smallpox vaccine, to study how to modify them to attack cells infected with COVID-19.

She says the safety and potency of the vaccines still need to be assessed, but there are promising signs.

Ilkow hopes that by September, there will be a strong vaccine candidate that will demonstrate efficacy when it comes to COVID-19.

Mohamed Ibnkahla

Mohamed Ibnkahla, an engineering professor at Carleton University, is looking at how people in Ottawa discuss COVID-19 on social media. 

Ibnkahla said his team has been collecting posts on Twitter and Facebook to assess how Ottawans feel about the pandemic and about physical distancing measures.

So far, he said, his research suggests residents developed real concern about the preparedness of the city back in February, and generally responded positively to the physical distancing measures governments introduced.

His research can provide another metric, he said, to access how compliant people are with physical distancing, along with their general anxiety levels.

Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo

Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo and his team at the The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute are trying to speed up the process of vaccine production.

While other labs work hard at creating vaccines, Diallo and his lab are focused on how to actually grow enough vaccines to inoculate billions of people in short order.

"Providing it to the world is a monumental task, and that nitty-gritty issue of manufacturing the vaccine becomes really important," he told All In A Day.

Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo is working to find ways to speed up production in preparation for an eventual vaccine. (Ottawa Hospital Research Institute)

His lab has found a way to shut down a cell's capacity to fight off a virus in a safe way, which actually enables producers to grow more vaccines.

The method can potentially provide a 100-fold increase in yield, he said.

Like many of the researchers, he said his lab has faced some difficulty during the pandemic getting the appropriate reagents and materials to conduct his experiments.

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