When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, Canada’s health research and innovation communities rose to the challenge and immediately began investigating ways to fight the virus, including using diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines and public health measures to help slow the spread and mitigate the social, health and economic impacts of the virus that causes COVID-19—SARS-CoV-2.
As a result, in just 16 months we now have three new therapeutic drugs and four COVID-19 vaccines approved by Health Canada that have been delivered to over 65% of Canada’s population. Many other vaccine and therapeutic candidates have been authorized for clinical study, over 40 of which are being led and/or supported by Research Canada Members.
Figure: Text description
|January 25, 2020||First COVID-19 case reported in Canada|
|March 11, 2020||The World Health Organization (WHO) declares COVID-19 a global pandemic|
|July 27, 2020||Health Canada approves COVID-19 antiviral, Remedesivir (Gilead Sciences Canada Inc.)|
|December 9, 2020||Health Canada approves mRNA vaccine (Pfizer-BioNTech Manufacturing)|
|December 14, 2020||First COVID-19 vaccines administered in Canada|
|December 23, 2020||Health Canada approves mRNA vaccine (Moderna)|
|February 26, 2021||Health Canada approves viral vector vaccine (Actrazenica)|
|March 5, 2021||Health Canada approves viral vector vaccines (Janssen Inc.)|
|May 5, 2021||Health Canada approves Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for youth ages 12-15|
|May 22, 2021||50% of the Canadian population recieved at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose|
|June 9, 2021||Health Canada approves new COVID-19 treatment for hospitalized patients (Hoffman-La Roche Limited)|
|July 23, 2021||More than 50% of the Canadian population is fully vaccinated|
How did we do it?
- Funding: The Government of Canada acted quickly to fund COVID-19 health research, investing over $2 billion since the start of the pandemic to support Canada’s research ecosystem in the fight against COVID-19.
- Fundamental Science: SARS-CoV-2 is a new infectious agent, but coronaviruses are not. Years of basic, biomedical research gave scientists a foundational understanding of coronaviruses that allowed them to quickly move beyond understanding SARS-CoV-2 to developing solutions to prevent and tackle the virus.
- Unprecedented Collaboration: Canada—and the world—saw unprecedented levels of collaboration among and between sectors and knowledge sharing across jurisdictions.
- Public Engagement: Recruitment of sufficient numbers of participants is often a challenge for clinical trials, but widespread public interest in solutions to COVID-19 helped to quickly attract large numbers of enthusiastic trial participants.
Rising to the Challenge
The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly had an enormous impact on Canada, from the disruption to people’s daily lives, to the halting of ongoing health and clinical research, to shining a light on the cracks in our health research and innovation ecosystem.
- Many ongoing research projects and funding opportunities were put on hold in order to focus efforts on the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which have yet to resume. Researchers across the country—from graduate students and trainees to postdoctoral fellows and early- and mid-career investigators—continue to face uncertain futures in research.
- Health charities are critical service providers to some of Canada’s most vulnerable populations and represent a vital source of funding for health and clinical research. Reduced philanthropic donations as a result of the economic challenges presented by COVID-19 severely reduced health charities’ capacity to carry out these fundamental activities and continue to threaten the long-term health of this sector.
- The pandemic has created unique barriers for post-secondary institutions and the research ecosystem as a whole to attract and retain international students and talent.
- In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, health and biosciences companies largely focused their efforts and resources towards vaccine, treatment and diagnostic research and development, as well as supplying front line workers with critical medical and personal protective equipment. With resources dedicated elsewhere, their ability to continue to invest in clinical research throughout much of the pandemic was severely limited. At the same time, health and biosciences companies were faced with continued uncertainty regarding the upcoming changes to the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) regulations.
- Academic health science centres lost critical research funding due to the halting of ongoing clinical research and subsequent pullout of private industry partners as they focused their own efforts on responding to the pandemic.
- Other health concerns and diseases did not stop for COVID-19. Indeed, many ongoing health concerns—like mental health and addictions—and chronic conditions have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
In addition to the impact COVID-19 has had on chronically ill populations, it has also disproportionately impacted already vulnerable and diverse communities, especially among Indigenous and racialized communities.Despite these challenges, Canada’s health research and innovation ecosystem rose to the challenge of COVID-19, focusing efforts on advancing innovative health research to combat the virus and continuing to support our most vulnerable populations.
Into the Future
The response of Canada’s health research and innovation ecosystem to the COVID-19 pandemic is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we work collaboratively and are supported both financially and with policies that enable and foster trans-sector partnerships between and among stakeholders. With the growing spread of COVID-19 variants, health research and innovation will continue to be critical in helping us to understand these variants and assess the effectiveness of vaccines and other interventions to achieve herd immunity enable us to return to—and maintain—a sense of normalcy in our daily lives.
We need to continue to support this ecosystem approach to research and innovation to ensure that Canada is prepared for the health challenges yet to come.
RC Members in the News
UNB long-term care simulation lab officially opens, ready to help NB residents and workers stay safe
University of New Brunswick | Saint John, New Brunswick
“The COVID-19 response highlights the fact that evidence on best practices and infection prevention and control measures often do not reflect the realities of long-term care, which include cultural factors, shared spaces and equipment use and individual behaviours related to cognitive impairments,” said Dr. McCloskey.
Remdesivir: Providing greater hope than ever in the fight against COVID-19
Gilead Sciences Canada | Mississauga, Ontario
All of us at Gilead are grateful that, along with the trial investigators and thousands of patients who have taken part in clinical trials, we have generated consistent data to help inform treatment decisions that will be taken on behalf of many more patients with COVID-19 in the future.
La FIIC crée un Fonds COVID-19 en soutien des infirmières et infirmiers du Canada
Fondation des infirmières et infirmiers du Canada | Ottawa, Ontario
La pandémie qui nous frappe crée des défis sans précédent pour tout le monde. Les infirmières et infirmiers et les autres professionnels de la santé sont aux premières lignes du combat pour protéger nos familles, nos amis et nos communautés. Leurs efforts inlassables sont essentiels à notre victoire dans cette lutte en mutation constante contre la COVID-19.
Researchers look at drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities
Alberta Health Services & University of Calgary | Calgary, Alberta
“We know that testing for COVID-19 is one of our most effective tools against its spread,” said Dr. John Conly. “Many remote communities in Canada do not have easy access to testing centres and medical supplies to support rapid testing and containment. Drones can help us respond to that need.”
Helping solve for the next COVID: Working to treat diseases that don’t even exist yet
AbbVie Canada | Saint-Laurent, Quebec
Armed with a culture of tackling big problems and an expertise in virology and both small molecule and antibody therapeutics, AbbVie scientists are working to understand future emerging global pandemics.
Baycrest researchers investigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on dementia risk
Baycrest Health Sciences | Toronto, Ontario
The effects of the pandemic on brain health cannot be ignored. Someone who was doing cognitively well before the pandemic hit might end up in the hospital with COVID-19 or experience a depressive episode due to social isolation, which could put them on the trajectory to dementia.
Scientists concerned focus on COVID-19 disrupting regular health research funds
Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences (CSMB) | Montreal, Quebec
Researchers rely on that funding, and Dr. Tarik Moroy, president of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences, said the delay is likely to disrupt vital work on other health conditions.
Laboratory workers are essential workers–and not just during a pandemic
Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) | Hamilton, Ontario
“We’re there before you’re born, up to your last breath. Techs are involved in anything from prenatal screening, diabetes, to cancer. We don’t just collect your blood,” said Christine Nielsen, CEO of CSMLS, whose membership included 13,706 technologists, cytologists and lab assistants across Canada.
Antiviral treatment may prevent severe COVID-19 cases, help curb community spread, study says
Canadian Society for Immunology | Toronto, Ontario
“In response to any and all virus infections, our very first response is we make interferon — we make interferon alpha, interferon beta, interferon lambda,” said Dr. Eleanor Fish. However, the novel coronavirus actually has encoded factors that “blunt interferon response,” she explained. “And those individuals who get very severe disease life-threatening disease have compromised interferon responses.”
Soutenir les personnes atteintes d’un cancer àl’heure de la COVID-19
Sanofi Genzyme | Mississauga, Ontario
Dès le début de la pandémie, Sanofi a pris les mesures nécessaires pour assurer la continuité des activités de son réseau mondial d’usines et la distribution ininterrompue de ses médicaments aux patients, partout dans le monde. La continuité des soins est essentielle pour donner aux personnes atteintes d’un cancer les meilleures chances possibles d’obtenir des résultats thérapeutiques positifs.
Canada, we need to talk about COVID-19, pandemics, technology and the way forward
Carleton University | Ottawa, Ontario
The COVID-19 pandemic has rightly sparked a serious and long-overdue national conversation about long-term care. There’s another conversation we need to have: how to keep older adults living independently longer. It’s what most of us want and it has the added benefit of easing the burden on institutional care.
Studying the effects of COVID-19 on health care providers
Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care | Penetanguishene, Ontario
Although challenging, healthcare providers identified a stronger sense of community, better understanding of different roles and what each provider contributed to the patient experience as a result of being deployed to a different role.
Governments and innovative pharmaceutical companies against COVID-19: An unprecedented collaborative effort
Innovative Medicines Canada | Ottawa, Ontario
As countries around the world race to find vaccines and treatments for the COVID-19 virus, Canada’s governments and innovative pharmaceutical companies have joined hands in a collaborative effort on a scale experts say is unprecedented in modern Canadian healthcare.
Montreal’s first post-COVID clinic opens at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute
Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) | Montreal, Quebec
Montreal’s post-COVID project has a dual mission: to provide patient care and to support research that Falcone hopes will one day help doctors evaluate, treat and better understand the full impact of the disease.
Driven by data, anchored in care: Research through a Learning Health System lens
IWK Health Centre | Halifax, Nova Scotia
“This is the true test of our ability to use data and evidence to inform what we do,” says Curran. “Ultimately it should mean that we are continuing to provide the best quality care to everyone who comes in to the IWK during the pandemic.”
Mitacs et le Réseau pour la santé du cerveau des enfants collaborent afin de soutenir les enfants vivant avec des incapacités pendant la COVID-19
Réseau pour la santé du cerveau des enfants | Surrey, British Columbia
« La COVID-19 a créé de nombreux défis tant pour les familles que les organisations en matière d’offre de soutiens et de services dans les domaines de la santé, de l’éducation et des services sociaux et communautaires. Cette initiative donne des ressources supplémentaires pour l’innovation en recherche afin de trouver des solutions qui amélioreront ultimement les vies d’enfants et de familles vulnérables. »
Tele-rehabilitation during the time of COVID-19
Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery (CSPR) | Ottawa, Ontario
As people isolate at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, more clinicians are using telehealth tools to communicate with people living with stroke and their care partners. The good news is that a recent publication found that tele-rehabilitation can be as effective as face-to-face therapy if used properly and under the right circumstances.
The key to finding a cure for COVID-19? Open science
Montreal Neurological Institute (The Neuro) | Montreal, Quebec
The COVID-19 crisis has taken medical research from relative obscurity to front-page news. Those of us who have spent years toiling in our labs, trying to understand diseases and searching for treatments, suddenly find ourselves at the centre of the world’s attention.
People with disabilities, autism carry a heavier pandemic burden, advocates say
March of Dimes Canada | Toronto, Ontario
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, people with disabilities were facing “significant” challenges every day, March of Dimes Canada president Len Baker previously told Global News. “Those historic barriers become exacerbated during a time such as this pandemic,” he said.
Canadian study could lead to rapid testing, severity prediction, and treatment for COVID-19
Lawson Health Research Institute | London, Ontario
“While our findings need to be confirmed in a larger group of patients, they could lead to a rapid, cost-effective screening tool as a first line of testing in the community and in-hospital,” said Dr. Douglas Fraser, lead researcher on the project.
Innovation, courage and teamwork in B.C. labs
Provincial Health Services Authority | Vancouver, British Columbia
COVID-19 has pulled labs from behind the scenes onto centre stage. Under immense pressure, courageous lab teams are collaborating across the province to rapidly and thoughtfully expand our test capacity and drive innovation together.
Caring for your mental health during COVID-19
Mood Disorders Society of Canada | Belleville, Ontario
Together we will get through this challenge, during this time it is important to reach out and obtain the support you need. Likewise, we need to be aware of others and look for ways to also support them through their days as well.
Ancien médicament, nouvelle thérapie
Institut de recherche du Centre universitaire de santé McGill (IR-CUSM) | Montréal, Québec
« La reconversion d’un médicament existant présente de nombreux avantages. » La reconversion d’un médicament existant pour une nouvelle utilisation présente l’avantage supplémentaire de permettre aux chercheurs de passer directement à la phase III d’un essai clinique et d’évaluer l’efficacité et la sécurité de la reformulation avec un investissement minimal en temps et en argent.
What happens to a COVID-19 test?
Nova Scotia Health | Halifax, Nova Scotia
Charles Heinstein, technical manager of Microbiology at Nova Scotia Health Authority gives a behind-the-scenes look at what happens to the samples collected from COVID-19 tests.
Pancreatic cancer research in the age of COVID-19
Pancreatic Cancer Canada | Toronto, Ontario
While the COVID-19 crisis has caused many research projects to slow and even cease, Pancreatic Cancer Canada’s research program has not been idle.
From HIV to COVID-19: How research pivoted in the face of the pandemic
Providence Health Care Research Institute | Vancouver, British Columbia
“As laboratory scientists, we can often feel very removed from the people we hope to help. Working on a study such as this, where the pathway from study conception to clinical translation is so quick and clear, is a motivating and refreshing reminder of the important role research plays in health care.”
Parkinson Canada adapts to pandemic times
Parkinson Canada | Toronto, Ontario
“Instead of culminating in one big walk and fundraising, we focused a little bit more on getting active and then building in the fundraising piece in that,” said Ryan Underhill, Atlantic Canada’s Managing Director for Parkinson Canada, of the online challenges titled Superwalk: The Movement.
Perspective à long terme : mieux comprendre la COVID-19 grâce à l’étude PURE
Université McMaster | Hamilton, Ontario
« La COVID-19 étant un problème de santé planétaire, des recherches d’une même envergure sont cruciales afin de nous aider à mieux la comprendre et à trouver des solutions pour des communautés entières, conclut-il. Il s’agit aussi d’une occasion d’apprentissage d’une ampleur mondiale. Personne ne peut travailler seul. »
How a Ryerson-led team is developing an ultra-sensitive testing technology for COVID-19 and beyond
Ryerson University | Toronto, Ontario
The technique, which can be applied to other infectious diseases, provides patients with a highly accurate assessment of whether they have COVID-19 or have had it in the past.
‘People cannot underestimate’ COVID-19, say long-haulers feeling symptoms months later
University Health Network | Toronto, Ontario
‘”People need to recognize this doesn’t go away just because you’re ‘resolved,’ as they call it.”
CT scan technology may detect unknowing carriers of COVID-19
University of Ottawa Heart Institute | Ottawa, Ontario
“When a patient with symptoms of COVID-19 is admitted to hospital, it is likely they will receive a CT scan and a nasopharyngeal swab,” says Dr. Andrew Crean, co-director of the cardiac MRI service at the UOHI. But according to Crean, the real question is, What do you do with patients who show up without symptoms of a virus or whose symptoms are very minor?
Dépistage et prise en charge : mise au point de meilleurs tests et traitements contre la COVID-19 grâce à la recherche sur les peptides
Université de Regina | Regina, Saskatchewan
Lorsque le Dr Mohan Babu a vu la rapidité avec laquelle la pandémie de COVID-19 se propageait dans le monde, en mars, il a décidé d’interrompre ses travaux pour se consacrer à de nouvelles recherches. Le Dr Babu, biochimiste à l’Université de Regina, savait que les tests de dépistage et les traitements allaient devenir des priorités et que ces deux domaines pouvaient bénéficier de son expertise.
It can take 10 years to develop a vaccine. How do you do it in one? Inside Canada’s race for a COVID-19 vaccine
VIDO-InterVac | Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
It normally takes 10 years to develop a vaccine. Everyone is trying to do this in about one. Even then, corners aren’t being cut, Falzarano said. Steps are being overlapped, but safety isn’t being compromised, he said.
Hospital-based labs mobilize to test for COVID-19 and alleviate backlog
Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute | Toronto, Ontario
Hospital-based laboratories are mobilizing to become testing centres for COVID-19 to help alleviate the growing backlog at overwhelmed public labs, which some health experts say is slowing Canada’s response to the virus.
York University librarian develops much-needed pandemic guide for consumers
York University | Toronto, Ontario
Acutely aware of the mounting need to better understand pandemics in light of COVID-19, York U librarian Marcia Salmon created an indispensable new guide for consumers. It sums up the history of pandemics, and offers descriptions of and links to leading resources like the WHO and CDC.