Small federal grant to give big boost to N.S. COVID-19 research

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COVID-19 vaccine research in Nova Scotia is about to get a shot in the arm.

A federal infrastructure grant announced on Friday will allow the Halifax-based Canadian Centre for Vaccinology to upgrade its facilities to a higher certification level for containing pathogens.

The COVID-19 work at the centre is done by researchers from Dalhousie University, the IWK Health Centre and the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

The IWK Health Centre-based facility will receive $1.2 million out of $28 million in grants allocated across the country.

Dr. Scott Halperin, the director of the centre, said while the amount of the grant is relatively small, the upgrades will allow the centre to work directly with the virus.

"We haven't been able to work with the virus itself," he said.

"This allows us to have much more flexibility here in order to do the full range of research on the SARS CoV-2 virus, which we weren't able to do before."

Matthew Garand/CBC
Matthew Garand/CBC

The upgrades in Halifax will allow a Level 3 certification. According to the Government of Canada, those labs must have added safety measures to deal with dangerous pathogens like anthrax and West Nile virus.

Those measures include air purification and showers, among others.

Halperin said the facility has been limited to studying transmission and immune responses using a pseudo-virus rather than the actual COVID-19 virus.

Pseudo-viruses contain fragments of genetic material and are used to study the behaviour of viruses, but they don't replicate.

NIAID-RML via Reuters
NIAID-RML via Reuters

Halperin said using the actual virus in a laboratory setting offers many advantages.

"This will allow us to look at the immune response better," he said.

"It will allow us, when we're assessing vaccines, to do studies here that we otherwise would have had to spend to send specimens elsewhere to be done."

Work must be done by end of March

The funding agreement requires all work to be done by the end of March 2021, according to Halperin.

He hopes the work can be done in the next few months.

"That's very important for us in order to be able to have in the Atlantic region a Level 3 facility that can do this type of work," he said.

"Not just for SARS CoV-2, but any other emerging pathogens that might come along down the road."

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