March 9, 2020

UCalgary researchers tapped to help mitigate spread of coronavirus

Research teams in medicine, public policy, and social work bring skills to global outbreak
Dr. Dylan Pillai and Dr. Byron Berenger
Dr. Dylan Pillai and Dr. Byron Berenger

Editor's note: For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of coronavirus, visit UCalgary's COVID-19 website.

Three University of Calgary-led research teams have received over $1.6 million in federal funding to accelerate the development, testing and implementation of countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19, and its consequences on people and communities.

“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,” says 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.”

  • Photo above: Dylan Pillai, right, will collaborate with Byron Berenger from Alberta Precision Laboratories to develop point-of-care testing for use in pandemics like COVID-19. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Funding was provided to projects exploring medical, social and policy measures to address the outbreak. The research initiative highlights the need for a collaborative approach to Canada's outbreak response that includes all of our public systems. Read more background about the initiative.

“UCalgary researchers are bringing evidence-based scholarship to this public health emergency,” says Dr. Ed McCauley, president and vice-chancellor at the University of Calgary. “This accelerated funding will enable them to mobilize quickly to support the safety and well-being of Canadians.”

“Thanks to the Government of Canada’s rapid action, University of Calgary researchers will be making a significant contribution to this critical body of research, with global impact,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “We will apply our rigorous research approach to COVID-19, while learning how we can effectively prepare for and respond to future outbreaks.”

Jeanna Parsons Leigh

Jeanna Parsons Leigh

Dalhousie University

Rapid diagnostics

Dr. Dylan Pillai, MD, PhD, will lead a team pursuing development of point-of-care testing for use in pandemics like COVID-19. They are working to create a tool that will enable health-care workers to rapidly identify the virus using portable bedside testing methods. This will allow diagnostic testing to be conducted outside of hospitals and laboratories in order to prevent further transmission and rapidly quarantine infected individuals.

Pillai is a professor in the departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Medicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases (MIID) in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and the Alberta Children Hospital Research Institute.

This project is funded in part by Genome Canada through the Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity

Dylan Pillai will lead a team developing point-of-care testing for use in pandemics like COVID-19.

Dylan Pillai will lead a team developing point-of-care testing.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Assessing Alberta’s preparedness and response

A team led by Dr. Myles Leslie, PhD, will evaluate how COVID-19 preparedness and response policies are being transmitted to, and implemented in, hospitals and family doctors’ offices in Alberta. Through interviews with public health workers, and site visits with frontline clinicians, the team will assess how policies, protocols, and lines of communication are functioning.

This research will create a detailed description of how policies are formed, transmitted, and put into action as the outbreak develops in Alberta. Working alongside public health professionals and clinicians, the team will help identify opportunities for improving response efforts in real time, and for future public health emergencies.

Leslie is the associate director of research at School of Public Policy, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the CSM and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Impact of coronavirus on children and their families

Dr. David Nicholas, PhD, and his team will assess how the COVID-19 outbreak impacts health-care delivery for paediatric patients and their families. Children with pre-existing health conditions are a highly vulnerable population during an outbreak. Those being treated for an illness are at risk for a wide range of concerns including isolation, heightened anxiety around infection, fear, financial hardship for their families, reduced access to services, and challenges related to stigma, and social acceptance. This study will offer recommendations for practice, policy development and health emergency contingency planning.

Nicholas is a professor in the Faculty of Social Work and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

Educating and empowering Canadians

A fourth project led by Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia includes 13 UCalgary faculty and staff members. This study will develop a national campaign to educate the Canadian public on coronavirus and COVID-19, and empower them to make informed health-care decisions. The team will be led by Dr. Jeanna Parsons Leigh, PhD, assistant professor at Dalhousie University and research assistant professor in the departments of Critical Care Medicine and Community Health Sciences at the CSM, and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. 

Information on UCalgary’s response to COVID-19 can be found on the Emergency Management website.

Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases

The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions to key global challenges. Through the research strategy for Infections, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD), top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.