McGill professors part of federally-funded Covid-19 research initiative

David L. Buckeridge and Amine Kamen have been chosen to participate in the Government of Canada’s global effort to address the public health challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak
Amine Kamen (left) and David L. Buckeridge

Earlier today, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced an investment of $6.75M to support the Canadian 2019 Novel COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity, created to contribute to efforts to accelerate the development, testing and implementation of medical and social countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of the COVID-19 and its negative consequences on people and communities.

David L. Buckeridge, Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, is among the 47 researchers across Canada who have been chosen to contribute to the global response to the outbreak. His research focus and practice is on public health informatics, in particular, he is interested in automated surveillance to detect disease outbreaks and to guide public health interventions. Buckeridge will receive $500,000 over the next two years for his project, Using Online News Media to Assess Community and Public Health Responses to COVID-19.

Also among the scientists conducting research on the novel Coronavirus is Amine Kamen, McGill Professor and Canada Research Chair in Bioprocessing of Viral Vaccines, and Denis Leclerc, a Professor at the Centre de recherché en infectiologie at Université Laval. Their research focuses on the development of vaccine components that will provide protection against the SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses. In collaboration, they will develop a vaccine formulation that can be stockpiled for a long period. Their goal is to produce vaccines with longer shelf lives to prepare for epidemics. The researchers will receive over $717k for the project Development of a nanoparticle-based vaccine candidate to the SARS-CoV-2.

Mitigating impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 research opportunity is funded in collaboration by the CIHR, the International Development Research Centre, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Genome Canada. The opportunity focuses on two overall themes, which are medical countermeasures research, and social and policy countermeasures. The sub-themes of the research projects include clinical management, diagnostics, therapeutics, transmission dynamics and animal hosts, vaccines, governance and logistics, social dynamics, communications and trust, and public health response and its impact.

“Canada’s researchers are some of the best in the world, and this funding will allow them to conduct groundbreaking research on a novel coronavirus,” said the Honourable Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health. “Protecting the health and well-being of all Canadians is our top priority, and the research conducted thanks to this funding will contribute to mitigating the outbreak of COVID-19.”

A public health emergency of international concern

First identified on December 31, 2019 by the authorities of Wuhan, Hubei province, China, as a cluster of pneumonia cases, the disease has spread to a number of countries outside China, with new cases identified daily. On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This declaration was made in response to the rapid spread of the virus and was made to jumpstart a coordinated effort to enhance preparedness globally. As of March 3 2020, there are more than 90,000 confirmed cases and close to 3,000 deaths around the world.

Global surveillance is critical for monitoring and guiding public health efforts to control the spread of emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Some types of surveillance, such as digital disease surveillance (DDS) systems developed and operated by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the WHO, hold particular promise for monitoring societal reactions, including public health control measures. DDS use methods from artificial intelligence to comb through information in online media reports from around the world to detect information about disease epidemics. Currently, the focus of DDS is detection, because despite the promise of DDS for monitoring societal reactions and public health control measures, existing DDS systems do not automate the extraction of information about community and public health responses to epidemics.

Using online news media to assess community and public health responses to COVID-19

Canada has played a leading role in developing computer-based systems for scanning news on the internet to detect signals of infectious diseases. Buckeridge and his team will work with the PHAC and the WHO to develop artificial intelligence methods for analyzing news on the internet to understand how communities and public health agencies around the world are responding to the COVID-19 epidemic.

To realize this goal, they will characterize the global evolution of COVID-19 in terms of community reaction and public health response by applying machine-learning methods to online news media from DDS. They will also compare the evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic in the online news media to the evolution as measured through official sources, to assess how observed differences may be explained by biases in media and other factors.

The results will enrich our understanding of global variations in community and public health responses to COVID-19, generate evidence to guide and identify effective strategies for controlling COVID-19, and enhance the capacity of DDS to improve global disease surveillance in the future.

Read the official press release.