Canada: Infection & immunity focus

Infection and Immunity
© Akeksandr Berdyugin

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, part of the Government of Canada, has an Institute of Infection and Immunity. Here, we gain a flavour of what they do

The Institute of Infection and Immunity (III), part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), is concerned with helping to build research capacity in the fields of the body’s immune system and infectious disease. The Institute is part of the Government of Canada and the researchers there focus on a vast array of health concerns around immunity and infection like health promotion through public policy, disease prevention and treatment, as well as disease mechanisms.(1)

It’s important to note here that the Institute is one of the 13 virtual institutes of CIHR. Certainly, a network of stakeholders, researchers and partners on a global scale play a crucial role in disseminating and generating details about immunity and infectious disease. Having said this, the Institute has an eminent leadership role when it comes to infectious diseases in Canada itself. Part of their work in this vein is assisting in the effort to “coordinate Canada’s rapid research response to infectious disease outbreaks, especially those caused by new, emerging pathogens.”

On mission and value, we understand that while the Institute strives to push novel research in infection and immunity research forward, they very much want to lower the global burden of infection and immune-based diseases in line with their approach based on CIHR’s core values of collaboration, excellence, scientific integrity and ethics plus innovation and public interest.

The Institute is a community of many individuals globally who have a shared interest in infection and immunity issues.(2) For example, Dr Charu Kaushic is Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster University. As Scientific Director for the Institute, she is tasked with making decisions about where CIHR invests at home and abroad. Also, she represents CIHR and the Government of Canada at several infectious diseases national and international forums. She is Chair of the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), a consortium of funders interested in emergency response and pandemic preparedness research.

Kaushic is involved with delivering a coordinated sero-survey agenda to deploy public health measures and working closely with partners on SARS-CoV-2 vaccine surveillance across Canada, as Executive Committee Member of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. It’s worth reading her biography to learn more, but it’s interesting to note that she is an advocate for women’s reproductive health and choices and is all for encouraging women to take careers and leadership roles in STEM fields.(3)

Supporting equity, diversity & inclusion

That leads us nicely to a recent piece of news concerning supporting equity, diversity and inclusion plus others affected by COVID-19. CIHR extends the submission deadline for the CIHR-CEPI Leadership Award for Excellence in Vaccine Research for Infectious Diseases of Epidemic Potential funding opportunity to 9th July 2021, we find out. This gives additional time for women, men, racialized scientists, and others impacted by COVID-19 to apply. CIHR spotted a lack of gender equity and diversity while processing the applications and went on to expand their thoughts about this.

“There is widespread recognition that the effects of COVID-19 are exacerbated, especially for women, parents of young children, and racialized scientists resulting in a disproportionate impact that is limiting the ability of these applicants to apply for grant competitions. CIHR has, therefore, decided to re-open this funding opportunity and extend the deadline to allow a larger and more diverse pool of applicants to apply.”

It should be noted that the extension does not in any way reflect the quality of the applications, but it takes into account the current reality of people’s competing priorities and commitments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.(4)

Vaccination in Canada

Following National Immunization Awareness Week (24th-30th April), Kaushic explains what has been learnt from the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The amazing speed with which they have been developed and their high efficacy to protect against serious disease were noted and she says this demonstrates how research can help to find a way out of the toughest challenges.

“It is clear at this point that rapid deployment and innovation in vaccines to address SARS-CoV-2 variants is going to be the exit strategy from this pandemic. Despite the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed, we should not forget the decades of research that went into the preparation of the platforms and no compromises were made regarding their safety. For scientists, this success has renewed the focus on tackling vaccines for other challenging diseases like HIV-1 and tuberculosis.”

Kaushic also addresses why some people refuse to be vaccinated, pointing out that studies show that while only a minority of people are anti-vaccine, a much larger proportion of the population are ‘vaccine-hesitant’. “These individuals have questions, and they want more evidence to be convinced that vaccines are safe and will protect them and their loved ones. We need to respect the needs of these people, answer their questions and provide them with the evidence they seek. Involving community leaders in culturally appropriate discussions can help reassure people and change their minds,” Kaushic explains.(5)

Closing thoughts

We have seen how this Institute supports research and building research capacity in infectious disease and immunity, linking it with the current COVID-19 pandemic. There is no doubt that their partnerships with an array of organisations will enable them to “work cooperatively in the global battle against disease and infection”.(6)








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