To further contribute to the Government of Canada and the Province of Nova Scotia’s efforts to address the COVID-19 outbreak, Research Nova Scotia (RNS), in partnership with Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and other partners, continues to provide rapid response funding from its Research Opportunities Fund. The following researchers have recently benefited from the fund.
Dr. Christa Brosseau
Innovative chemical strategies to help Nova Scotian pulp mills explore ways to transition into the production of medical-grade pulp for N95 respirator production
N95 respirators are critical in the fight against COVID-19. N95 masks are typically composed primarily of synthetic polymer materials (polypropylene, polyester) with cellulose sometimes incorporated into one of the many layers that make up the respirator. At present, limited numbers of mills in Canada are producing medical grade pulp and they are struggling to keep up with the increased demand.
Dr. Christa Brosseau’s project intends to explore innovative chemical strategies to help Nova Scotian pulp mills explore ways to transition into the production of medical-grade pulp for N95 respirator production.
RNS Contribution: $72,600
Dr. Scott Halperin
Studying the impact of public health control policies and implementation on the NGO and NFP community in Canada
While public health policies are required to control an infectious disease outbreak, these policies can adversely affect individuals and communities. Quarantine, limitations in movement and public gathering, and other restrictive measures can put a social and economic burden on individuals, which may be disproportionate depending on their socioeconomic status and other factors.
Dr. Scott Halperin’s project will examine the cultural dimensions of the COVID-19 epidemic. This will include examining how individuals and communities understand and react to the disease; studying the response of public health; and exploring how public health policy affects individuals and communities.
The findings from this multi-province, multi-country study in Canada (British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia), Bangladesh, and China (Guangdong) will be used to improve the process by which public health policies are created and implemented.
RNS Contribution: $154,010
Dr. Kevin Kelloway
Organizational Response to Disease Outbreak
Dealing with a pandemic on this scale is a massive social challenge that has dramatically changed the nature of workplaces. The study will look at employee perceptions of their employers’ management of these two goals, with a focus on examining how the organizational response to disease outbreaks influences employees’ own health and health-promoting behaviours.
Along with a large national survey representative of Canadian workers, which Dr. Kelloway says will be longitudinal, following employees as they go through this experience, the team is also planning more focused studies on the role of leaders (managers and supervisors) in managing this crisis as well as more in-depth studies of employees who have transitioned to working at home.
Dr. Kelloway’s team also includes Dr. Jane Mullen (Mount Allison University), Dr. Stephanie Gilbert (Cape Breton University) and Dr. Jennifer Dimoff (University of Ottawa) as well as PhD students Tabatha Thibault, Rachael Jones Chick and Vanessa Myers – all PhD students in the Industrial/Organizational Psychology program at Saint Mary’s.
RNS Contribution: $79,400
Dr. David Kelvin
Identification of Biomarkers that Predict Severity of Infection in COVID-19 Patients
One of the major concerns with outbreaks like COVID-19 is overwhelmed emergency rooms, hospitals and ICU wards. Dr. Kelvin is developing a point-of-care device that can be used by emergency room doctors to quickly predict whether someone presenting with the disease will have a mild or severe case.
This is part of an international effort to find a set of biomarkers and gene expression assessment of COVID-19 patients. The data from these screenings will be used to determine which biomolecules are associated with mild, severe and critically ill patients.
Dr. Kelvin’s research is being conducted through the Canadian COVID-19 Research Network, which includes researchers from China, Vietnam, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Cote D’Ivoire, Mozambique, the U.S. and Canada.
RNS Contribution: $600,000
Dr. John Lewis
Rapid Prototyping and Deployment of a Therapeutic Pan-Coronavirus Fusogenix DNA Vaccine Engineered to Eliminate ADE
In this project, Dr. John Lewis and team will rapidly develop, validate and clinically evaluate a novel DNA Vaccine against COVID-19 utilizing well-validated Fusogenix proteolipid vehicle (PLV) intracellular delivery platform. The use of a plasmid DNA vaccine will allow them to utilize multiple epitopes from key immunogenic SARS-COV-2 proteins, generating protection against structural components of the novel coronavirus, which should not only protect against viral entry but provide a robust cell-based response during active infection. Working with an international multi-disciplinary team including investigators at University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, Entos Pharmaceuticals, VIDO, EpiVax, Virscio and a pharmaceutical partner, they will rapidly prototype, validate and clinically evaluate a pan-coronavirus DNA vaccine.
RNS Contribution: $50,000
Dr. Beth Mason
Slowing the spread of COVID-19: developing anti-viral coatings for plastic-based packaging
Dr. Mason is the CEO of the Verschuren Centre where she leads the research team in bringing together large industry and community partners to develop and demonstrate innovative solutions, including nano-technology applications. Her team’s project aims to reduce the risk of indirect transmissibility from plastic packaging by developing innovative methods to improve the plastic’s resistance against coronaviruses and potentially inactivate such viruses upon surface contact.
Polymer expert, Dr. Avik Khan of the University of New Brunswick, is working closely with Dr. Mason on this project. Recent grants from Research Nova Scotia and the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF) will help propel their work forward.
RNS Contribution: $44,500
Dr. Martin Mkandawire
Development of Point-of-Care Rapid SARSCoV-2 Detection System based on Surface Acoustic Wave Technology Platform
Dr. Martin Mkandawire is a solid-state chemist and chemistry professor in the School of Science and Technology at Cape Breton University. His team’s project aims to rapidly diagnose COVID-19 from a person’s oral and nasal fluids with the entire detection protocol being completed within 5 to 10 minutes.
Teams around the world are racing to develop a rapid testing method. A key to solving this critical problem is research into many different candidate approaches. Dr. Mkandawire has been developing a unique specialization which brings a fresh perspective to developing a rapid test.
RNS Contribution: $74,988
Dr. Jeanna Parsons Leigh
Working on the impact of COVID-19 on Nova Scotia primary care providers and vulnerable patient populations
Infectious disease outbreaks pose a severe threat to the physical and mental health of individuals and populations worldwide. A better understanding of the social and cultural factors that contribute to public knowledge and perceptions of COVID-19 is needed to develop evidence-informed strategies to combat misinformation, stigma and fear.
Dr. Parsons Leigh will develop a national knowledge translation (KT) campaign that is centered on understanding and describing the knowledge base, perceptions and associated implications of the COVID-19 outbreak for the Canadian public to develop targeted interventions to close top identified public knowledge gaps. The ultimate goal of her work is to educate, engage and empower members of the public to be informed stewards of their health knowledge in relation to the current outbreak.
RNS Contribution: $155,760
Dr. Audrey Steenbeek
Sociocultural and behavioural factors affecting communities’ response to countermeasures for COVID-19 epidemic: identifying interventions to build trust
As public health authorities increase efforts to address the new coronavirus epidemic (COVID-19), rumours, misinformation, and xenophobic online posts are spreading faster than the virus. Fear and misinformation have direct implication on the implementation of effective public health measures to control the epidemic. With this research, we will examine the individual and sociocultural factors that impact individual’s and communities’ adoption of public health recommendations. This study will use qualitative and quantitative methods to describe online discourses related to COVID-19 in Canada (Tweets and comments on news media report) and to describe individual/ community understanding of disease, priorities, fears, etc. including public health messaging that may impact the acceptance of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. We will also identify interventions that will help build public trust in authorities responsible for disease spread and management, while dispelling unfounded rumours and xenophobic discourse.
Dr. Steenbeek’s team also includes Dr. Eve Dube (NPI) Laval University, Dr. Julie Bettingers (UBC), Drs: Janet Curran, Janice Graham & Noni MacDonald (Dalhousie University); Dr. Samantha Meyer (University of Waterloo) & Drs: Wayne Xu and Devon Greyson University of Massachusetts.
RNS Contribution: $100,000
Dr. Nikhil Thomas
Massive High Throughput COVID-19 Testing Using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS): Addressing the Urgent Need for Widescale Testing Capacity Within Communities
In Canada, the current COVID-19 testing approaches are operating near full capacity and key reagent supply chains are stressed. Current Public Health testing priority is for symptomatic individuals and close contacts. This is a highly valued and validated standard of care approach but does not readily identify pre- or asymptomatic virus spreaders. Due to the highly transmissible nature of the SARS-Cov-2 virus, operational challenges make COVID-19 detection and containment very difficult within the Canadian population. The Chief Medical Officer of Canada has identified an urgent need to ramp up testing capacity for COVID-19 and epidemiologists are strongly recommending expanded testing capacity to inform collective infection control efforts. In this study, Dr. Nikhil Thomas and his research team will pilot an innovative protocol that benefits from fewer sample extraction steps and massive scaling potential due to the use of DNA molecular barcodes. The goal of their work is to broadly expand testing for COVID-19 into communities and workplaces to measure virus burden. Evidence collected can be used to help make decisions about enacting (or reducing) stringent isolation measures.
RNS Contribution: $60,000
Dr. Rudolf Uher
Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadians living with mental illness, and their children
Social isolation, disruption of sleep and activity rhythm, unemployment and economic downturns are known risk factors for mental illness, including depression and suicide. The co-occurrence of these factors during the COVID-19 pandemic raises concerns that a wave of ill mental health, depression and suicides will follow in the next months and may claim a toll that is equal to or greater than that of the viral illness itself. Therefore, it is essential that the impact on mental health must be part of the evaluation of the pandemic and the public health measures taken to limit the spread of the infection. The examination of mental health impacts needs to include groups that are at increased risk. Those with pre-existing mental disorders may be most vulnerable to the indirect consequences of the pandemic and the public health response. Children growing up in families affected by mental illness may be especially vulnerable as access to schools and external resources is restricted and their wellbeing depends on other members of their families.
Dr. Uher plans to evaluate mental health, including depression, functioning and suicidal thoughts and behaviours in adults living with mental illness and in their children. His team will also examine the factors that may mitigate the impact in order to inform policies and health interventions needed to reduce the mental health consequences of the present pandemic as well as future emergencies.
RNS Contribution: $50,000