A long-term research and pandemic strategy is long overdue

Debbie Lawes
May 20, 2020

The federal government deserves half marks for providing nearly $1 million towards the development of a long-term research and pandemic strategy for Canada (see Mark Lowey's exclusive coverage). The exercise will be led by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and will see the establishment of a new Centre for Pandemic Preparedness and Health Emergencies Research.

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This is an important step that is long overdue. Many lives could have been saved and the economic impact lessened had a strategy been in place well before the coronavirus spread with lightning speed across the world and Canada this year.

At a minimum, citizens expect their political leaders to react swiftly and effectively in times of crisis. But true leadership is about anticipating and preparing for such events. It’s not like we haven’t experienced a pandemic before. COVID-19 is the third coronavirus outbreak in 17 years. Canada’s experience with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and the H1N1 influenza pandemic clearly demonstrated the need to be prepared for widespread disease outbreaks.

In 1993, Health Canada organized an Expert Working Group on Emerging Infectious Disease Issues, which called for, among other things, a national research agenda for emerging and resurgent infections, as well as a national vaccine strategy.

Similar recommendations were made a decade later with the release of the report of the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health, chaired by Dr. David Naylor. That 2003 report identified several system-level challenges that emerged around public health emergencies, including a lack of research capacity in the clinical and public health systems, difficulty with timely access to lab results, and weak links between public health and the personal health services system.

Last November at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa – nearly two decades after that Naylor report – an expert in emergency preparedness and response with Public Health Ontario discussed her attempts to identify approaches to support evidence-informed practice that can make public health agencies and communities more prepared and resilient. What Dr. Yasmin Khan quickly discovered, however, was a dearth of research on this topic. What little she found was US-based and not always applicable in the Canadian context.

The need to address these longstanding challenges has suddenly become even more imperative. An effective long-term research and pandemic strategy will require an interdisciplinary and multisectoral approach that is coordinated and integrated, with a commitment to long-term sustainable funding. Trusted relationships need to be established well in advance of an emergency, and community engagement is essential.

As Canada takes the next steps to develop a long-term research and pandemic strategy, building public trust will be critical. Fortunately we are starting from a strong position. An online poll conducted by Proof Strategies CanTrust in early May found that Canadians’ trust in doctors has increased to 87% and to 82% for scientists (compared to 76% and 70% respectively in a January poll.

As Canada struggles to contain its third and most dangerous pandemic in recent history, it would be unconscionable if we squandered this opportunity to effectively plan for the next inevitable outbreak.

Let’s rise to the challenge.

Debbie Lawes, Acting Managing Editor

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