Canada’s Response to COVID-19: An Interview with Canada’s Chief Science Advisor

Dr. Mona Nemer, as Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, is mandated to provide advice on issues related to science and government policies that support science. She ensures that science is considered in the federal government’s policy decisions and that government science is accessible to Canadians.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in April, Research Canada interviewed Dr. Nemer to gauge her thinking on a number of key issues our Members deemed were important to the health research enterprise and health innovation ecosystem.

RESEARCH CANADA: The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be one of the most challenging health crises of our time. Health researchers are tackling the virus head-on as part of a health system that is at the forefront of the pandemic. It is a system, however, that lacks the critical infrastructure to effectively transition to virtual care in times of crisis, resulting in the halting of critical clinical trials and medical research across the country. What role can the Chief Science Advisor and the federal government play in ensuring that vital clinical trials and medical research are conducted even during public health crises?

DR. MONA NEMER: Researchers and scientists in Canada and around the world are working hard to better understand the virus, as well as its impacts on people and communities and on developing long-term solutions. My role as Chief Science Advisor (CSA) is to provide advice to the Prime Minister and Cabinet based on these latest scientific developments in COVID-19 research.

As a response to some of the advice it received, the government put in place measures to accelerate the research and clinical trials that are most vital to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The government is investing more than $1 billion in support of a national medical and research strategy to address COVID-19 that includes vaccine development, the production of treatments, and the tracking and testing of the virus.

As we navigate through the crisis, it is tempting to focus exclusively on COVID-related work and issues. Yet, this is not sustainable.

I have mandated a task force to recommend ways to balance COVID and non-COVID work in the health system. I am confident that their recommendations will help limit future disruptions of vital health research activities.

RESEARCH CANADA: What are you advising the federal government to do regarding health research funding for non-COVID research and researchers during this crisis?

DR. NEMER: This is a very difficult time for researchers and trainees who are not working on COVID-19 research. Shutting down non-COVID-19 research was a tough call, but we need to work together to prevent the spread of the disease and protect public health. Extending scholarships and grants for graduate students and faculty would support our researchers during this crisis. Conducting research projects will remain challenging, and some researchers may be affected more than others. We look forward to resuming all research activities when it is safe to do so.

RESEARCH CANADA: What are the most valuable lessons COVID-19 has taught you, as Chief Science Advisor, in terms of Canada being research ready for new and emerging infectious diseases? How can we be better prepared in the future?

DR. NEMER: First, I want to say that I am very pleased about the quick turn-around on the granting agencies’ side to provide rapid research funding for COVID-19 research. The response from our scientific community has been incredible and it is clear to me that Canada has no shortage of top-tier, dedicated researchers in this field. All this talent and hard work can only go so far, however, without robust coordination. This is true for the entire pandemic-response pipeline, from basic virology and immunology research, to vaccine and therapeutic development, to clinical trials. I anticipate that we will learn a lot from the COVID-19 experience about where we can improve in terms of research coordination to be better prepared for the future. From my many conversations with frontline researchers, there is a lot of appetite for this so my hope is that we can capitalize on the momentum.

RESEARCH CANADA: What important and unique role do you see key sectors playing in response to COVID-19 and future pandemics, e.g. academic health science centres, universities, health charities, colleges, health and bioscience companies, federal and provincial governments?

DR. NEMER: A pandemic like COVID-19 is a huge challenge and we need everyone to play a role in finding the best path forward. I want to acknowledge the massive support we have received so far from the research community: post-secondary and research institutions have generously donated reagents that are in short supply due to unprecedented testing demands, and many scientists with PCR expertise have put forward their names to act as surge capacity at COVID-19 Resources Canada. I am so grateful to all of the people who are contributing their time and expertise.

In terms of key roles, the main job of provincial and federal governments during a pandemic is to protect the health and safety of Canadians. They do so by implementing evidence-informed guidelines, procuring and distributing protective equipment, accelerating research and development of COVID-19 countermeasures and supporting communities across Canada. Governments cannot do it alone, however. They need the latest scientific evidence on the virus to make the right decisions; this evidence is produced by researchers in Canada and internationally. Governments want to have access to safe and efficacious therapeutics and vaccines to end the pandemic, so they are working with universities, academic health science centres and companies to fund efforts and fast-track clinical trial approvals, as well as invest in manufacturing capacity in Canada and protect supply chains. Universities, colleges, institutes and polytechnics are both supporting research and training the frontline and essential service staff that we rely on today for our society to keep functioning in this time of crisis.

These post-secondary institutions have also stepped up by providing solutions to meet medical equipment shortages by using 3D printers and research facilities. Health and bioscience companies are innovating to produce diagnostic and safety equipment to support the pandemic response. Health charities are playing an important and complementary role to funding agencies. For example, early in the pandemic, the Gates Foundation allocated significant funding to help strengthen African and South Asian health systems.  Each sector has an important role to play in fighting this pandemic and getting our normal lives back.

RESEARCH CANADA: Although health and medical research is conducted by both universities and research hospitals, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed that most patient-contact health research occurs in the hospitals, as do most academia-industry partnerships in health research. How can we ensure that the hospital research sector is adequately protected and nurtured so that it has what it needs during times of crisis like the current one?

DR. NEMER: I would like to first thank the health and medical research community who shared protective equipment and reagents early on when the hospital sector was facing shortages. In times of crisis, it makes a big difference for us all to work together.

In terms of protection, the Public Health Agency of Canada and provincial public health organizations have been providing guidelines on how to protect employees, including those working in hospitals. I am certain that research institutions, as other employers, are implementing measures to protect health and medical researchers from the risks of contagion.

RESEARCH CANADA: Canada’s health research and innovation ecosystem exists in a global context in terms of scientific discoveries and data. The country’s capacity to respond to pandemics hinges on our ability to collaborate and share data internationally as well as to share personal health data. As Chief Science Advisor, what role can you play in ensuring that Canada has access to all the data we require during a pandemic?

DR. NEMER: To address the urgent needs of the government, I have assembled a multidisciplinary science expert panel and two sub-groups to advise me on the latest scientific developments relevant to COVID-19. We have been meeting regularly to discuss these developments and provide advice to the government in its response. We have emphasized the importance of having the right data to provide high-quality advice to government. Some of our recommendations have been specifically on data collection and access.

At the international level, I am in regular discussions with national science advisors from a dozen countries on COVID-19 responses. A topic of considerable interest and discussion is enhancing the ability of researchers and other stakeholders to access and re-use or text-mine all published articles on coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. This timely access is critical. It allows researchers to keep up with the rapidly growing body of literature and identify trends in the effort to characterize this novel virus, and thereby address the associated global health crisis. I support the January 30 statement of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board on COVID-19 that called on countries, institutions, communities and partners to ensure that all relevant information about the outbreak is shared openly and rapidly.

RESEARCH CANADA: Global supply chains for testing, therapeutics and vaccines are severely disrupted during pandemics, diminishing our capacity to respond to the critical needs of patients during these crises. What can the Chief Science Advisor do to assist in facilitating access to the supply chains we need to tackle pandemics effectively?

DR. NEMER: Ensuring that our supply chains continue to deliver testing and pharmaceuticals products is critical to an effective COVID-19 response plan. While this issue is not within the direct scope of my work, I can say that my discussions with experts from across the country have helped clarify the health related risks associated with disruptions to these supply chains. This is especially true in the case of test kits.

DR. NEMER: Mitigating the impact of this pandemic depends on our ability to understand the prevalence of the disease and how it spreads within our communities. Timely and comprehensive testing is key to developing this understanding, and healthy supply chains are necessary to achieve this. I am confident that officials at the departments of Industry (Innovation) and Health are working to ensure that our supply chains continue to function at the highest levels possible during this uncertain time.

RESEARCH CANADA: We have noted the fast-tracked approval and funding processes for health research related to COVID-19. Some questions are raised by these fast-track mechanisms, including how much additional risk we are incurring compared to the usual lengthier regulatory processes. Is, or will there be, consideration for “relaxed’ regulations that enable a responsible and risk-based regulatory approach that gives Canadian patients quicker access to treatments and other health innovations in the future?

DR. NEMER: The health and safety of Canadians is top of mind for the government and the regulators. Health Canada is working with a sense of urgency and responsibility on fast-tracking approvals of clinical trials for possible treatments and vaccines. My understanding is that the same amount of due diligence is being performed, but in a much shorter timeframe.

Ultimately, health innovations and treatments approved for use in Canada will be based on sound science and evidence. It comes down to finding the right balance of expediency and ensuring the safety of Canadians.