While the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine in the near future would be ideal, other solutions to the pandemic it has caused might appear first, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in announcing more than $1 billion for medical research and testing to battle the virus.
The federal government also created a task force Thursday to oversee blood-test surveys to see how widely the virus has spread in Canada and provide reliable estimates of immunity and vulnerabilities among Canadians.
The new cash builds on $275 million in research funding the Liberals announced in March at the outset of the pandemic.
Most of the new money is aimed at funding vaccine development and clinical trials, including $600 million over two years through a federal innovation fund.
Smaller amounts will support scientific efforts to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19 and a project led by Genome Canada to track the virus, its different strains and how it makes people ill in different ways.
“A vaccine, obviously, arriving soon would be the best solution,” Trudeau told a news briefing outside his Ottawa residence.
But he said it may be a long while before a vaccine emerges, and there are discussions about treatments for COVID-19 that might also be effective.
“I mean, we’ve been waiting for and looking for and searching for a vaccine for AIDS for decades now and it still hasn’t come. But there are treatments that mean quality of life for people with HIV have been massively improved,” Trudeau said.
“There are different ways of moving through. We will take the best ways we possibly can as we move forward.”
The new COVID-19 immunity task force will operate under the direction of a group that includes Theresa Tam, the country’s chief medical officer, and Mona Nemer, the chief federal science adviser.
“They’ll be looking at key questions like how many people beyond those we’ve already tested have had COVID-19, whether you’re immune once you’ve had it and, if so, how long that lasts,” Trudeau said.
The government expects at least one million Canadians will be tested over two years as part of the study.
The current standard testing checks for the presence of the virus now, but immunity testing identifies antibodies that reveal who has been exposed to the virus previously, Nemer told a briefing Thursday. Together, the two will provide a better picture of the overall number of people who have been infected.
Data will help with everything from rollouts of a potential vaccine to determining which public health measures are most effective.
“The better we understand this virus, its spread and its impact on different people, the better we can fight it and eventually defeat it,” Trudeau said.
About 20,000 Canadians are being tested daily to see if they have COVID-19, almost double the number earlier this month. But testing must accelerate even further before Canadians can begin resuming their usual activities, the prime minister said.
The various initiatives outlined Thursday are about empowering scientists and researchers and giving them tools they need, said Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains.
“Science is a fundamental component to beating COVID-19 and in order for us to move ahead we need to search for and develop therapeutics and vaccines and we need to have the capacity to manufacture them in Canada as well,” he said in an interview.
“This made-in-Canada solution and this mobilization effort is very much focused on the health crisis, but also going to benefit Canada in the medium and long-term as well.”
—With files from Jordan Press