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Canadians at forefront of COVID-19 research, say experts

Canadians at virus forefront

The potential for a worldwide pandemic has kept scientists in Canada at the ready and placed them at the forefront of the global response to the outbreak of the new coronavirus, several prominent researchers say.

Dr. Srinivas Murthy was among those experts who gathered at the World Health Organization's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, last month to discuss how to combat the virus.

The outbreak of viruses with the potential to become pandemics is going to be "our new reality," said Murthy, a professor at the University of British Columbia's department of pediatrics and an infectious disease specialist at the B.C. Children's Hospital.

"We just have to start getting used to this in some way (and) also be able to respond aggressively and effectively."

Murthy is serving as co-chair of the WHO's clinical research committee for the new virus, which is looking to establish better descriptions of COVID-19 including what causes it, who gets sick and why some individuals might become sicker.

The committee is also exploring how to help people recover from the novel coronavirus and establish how to determine whether a patient has recovered.

"I think if you were a betting person, you would say there is high risk of this continuing to spread in various parts of the world," said Murthy, adding that it's speculative to say how exactly it might progress.

The good news, he said, is that global collaboration has been expedited like never before, and experts have learned a lot since severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, first broke out in 2002.

Canada was pivotal in describing SARS, largely because Ontario was hit hard by the virus, said Murthy, but at the time, research that would have helped the response to the outbreak was minimal. After SARS, researchers recognized that coronaviruses could be a problem in the future, said Murthy.

"We've learned quite a bit over the past 17 years."

The Canadian Institute for Health Research — a funding body for health research in the country — has been "imperative" in helping to co-ordinate the global response to the new coronavirus as it relates to research priorities, such as the development of a preventative vaccine and therapeutic treatments, he said.

Charu Kaushic, the scientific director for the institute's infection and immunity division, said the CIHR was able to put together a "rapid response" to COVID-19, making $6.75 million available for research into the new virus, a number she said will rise significantly when the total amount is announced in the coming days.



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