Save lives and stop spread: International researchers set priorities for controlling coronavirus

Canada will focus its $6.5 million in coronavirus research on the medical and social sides of the outbreak.

Therapies and vaccine development, clinical trials and fighting stigma among Canada's strengths

A scientific staff member works in a secure laboratory, researching the coronavirus, at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar last week. The institute is designated by the African Union as one of the two reference centres in Africa for the detection of the new coronavirus that appeared in China. (Seyllou/AFP/Getty)

Canada will focus its $6.5 million in coronavirus research on the medical and social sides of fighting the outbreak, says one of the 300 scientists who attended the World Health Organization's meeting to set global investigative priorities.

A two-day research and innovation forum on the illness now called COVID-19 concluded this week in Geneva. The illness has killed more than 1,000 people.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters he was "very encouraged by the energy and speed in which the global research community has taken up this challenge."

Charu Kaushic, an infection and immunity scientist based at McMaster University in Hamilton, represented the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) at the meeting.

She said Chinese delegates stressed they're desperate for help in controlling the epidemic.

"How to save lives and how do we stop the spread," Kaushic said. "Those are the two most urgent things that we need to address right now because people in China are dying."

International research groups will work on the most pressing issues, such as:

  • Developing diagnostic tests that don't need sophisticated laboratory technology to perform.
  • Finding the best ways to prevent infections, such as quarantine protocols and wearing masks, gloves and gowns appropriately.
  • Identifying potential therapies to treat patients.
  • Speeding up the best bets for a vaccine.
  • Addressing the "infodemic" — the global spread of misinformation that fuels panic and racism.

For its part, the federal government is setting aside $6.5 million in research grants for science on the outbreak.

Kaushic said Canada has excellent capabilities, particularly:

  • Therapies and vaccine development — as was the case in contributing to fighting the Ebola outbreaks  in West Africa and Congo.
  • Clinical trials.
  • Social and behavioural topics, such as fighting fear and stigma.

Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and policy at York University in Toronto, also attended the meeting and said Canada has a deep bench of science and social science to contribute.

For instance, Hoffman called human rights an essential part of any outbreak response.

"Human rights did not come up very often," he said. "In fact, I'm the only person who mentioned that term during the meeting." 

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For prevention, WHO's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, said four vaccine candidates are in development.

"It's likely that there will be one or two that will go into human trials in about three to four months from now," she said. "That itself would be rapid progress."

With files from The Canadian Press


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