COVID-19 research moving at ‘lightning speed’, thanks to generous community support

Nine projects approved for funding so far through The Ottawa Hospital Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund

May 8, 2020

Medical sample tubesResearchers at The Ottawa Hospital are working around the clock to advance more than 50 potentially life-saving research projects to support the world-wide effort to find better ways to treat and prevent COVID-19. Now, nine of these projects have been approved for seed funding through The Ottawa Hospital Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. The projects cover the full spectrum of research, from drug discovery to clinical trials to population health and prevention. A total of $450,000 has been awarded to these projects, as well as to support related research services and pandemic response initiatives at The Ottawa Hospital’s Research Institute.

“We’re working at lightning speed to move our COVID-19 research projects forward because we know that this research could make all the difference,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, Executive Vice-President of Research at The Ottawa Hospital and professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. “This support from the community has given us a huge boost, and we’re so thankful. I also want to thank the many donors who have supported all our other research over the years. Without this past support, we wouldn’t have the world-class facilities and resources that we’re now using for COVID-19 research.”

“When COVID-19 hit Ottawa, our community responded immediately with donors at all levels wanting to help,” said Tim Kluke, President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. “The COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund was created and over $1.4 million has been donated. Now, just a few weeks later, even as donations continue to be made toward the fund, it’s truly inspiring to be able to watch them being put to use to support promising new research and innovation. This has proven to be, and will continue to be, a powerful way for our community to rally together to make a real difference.”

All staff at The Ottawa Hospital were invited to submit ideas for helping patients, healthcare workers and the city deal with COVID-19, and projects were chosen for funding after a rigorous internal peer-review process. Researchers are also applying for external funding for these projects, with several awards already received.

Research projects funded through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund*:

*Two additional funded projects will be announced later with partners.

The COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund is also supporting core facilities and resources required for all the COVID-19 research projects at The Ottawa Hospital. Other projects that will benefit from this core support include a vaccine development project and a cell therapy clinical trial for critically ill patients.

In the coming weeks, additional COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund grants will be awarded for research, as well as for the development of innovative treatments and processes. The COVID-19 Emergency Response fund is also supporting frontline medical teams and essential equipment and contributing to the care and comfort of patients.

Summaries of research projects funded through The Ottawa Hospital Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund

Using lab-grown human tissues to identify possible treatments

Dr. William Stanford and his colleagues are using human tissue models to understand why COVID-19 makes some patients severely ill. They also hope to identify and test new drugs that can reduce the severe lung damage that typically kills people with COVID-19. First, they will rapidly test two cellular pathways involved in causing this lung damage. Then they will rapidly screen for drugs that have already been approved by Health Canada and the FDA that are able to block these pathways, and potentially reduce disease severity and death. Their research may also reveal biomarkers that can identify which patients with COVID-19 are most likely to require intensive care.

Stopping COVID-19 with behavioral science and artificial intelligence 

Dr. Justin Presseau and colleagues plan to use state-of-the-art behavioural science and artificial intelligence to develop an app that can help people reduce how much they touch their eyes, nose and mouth. This T-shaped area of the face known as the T-zone is the main way that the COVID-19 virus gets into the body. Reducing T-zone touching could reduce the transmission of COVID-19, as well as transmission of other infections that pass through the nose and mouth. Most people touch their T-zone 15-20 times per hour, often without realizing it. The app would help people become aware of this behavior and walk them through possible techniques and training to reduce T-zone touching. This project will involve international experts in machine learning and computer vision, health psychology and behaviour change, and human-centred design and infection control.

Understanding the challenge of COVID-19 for Ottawa’s most vulnerable people

Dr. Smita Pakhale and her colleagues will harness the trust and engagement they have built with Ottawa’s most marginalized communities over the last 10 years through community-based participatory action research to examine how COVID-19 has impacted these individuals. Marginalized people who are low-income, homeless, and at-risk of homelessness face numerous social and health inequities that are exacerbated by crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. These individuals face unique barriers when accessing health services and may be last in line for support. Data co-collected and co-analyzed with people of lived experience could lead to the development of better policies and programs to help vulnerable populations during COVID-19 and future crises.

Mobile reporting of adverse events from a pandemic COVID-19 vaccine

Dr. Kumanan Wilson and his colleagues will harness their electronic vaccine-tracking platform CANImmunize to let Canadians report potential adverse events from a COVID-19 vaccine through their mobile device. This will be crucial in ensuring both the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine and enhancing public trust in the vaccine. The team has already built and tested a proof-of-concept pilot app in partnership with the Canadian Vaccine Safety Network for monitoring adverse events from the seasonal influenza vaccine. This reporting function will be activated for testing during the fall flu season for use by participating employees at The Ottawa Hospital, in preparation for a probable COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.

Testing plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients as a possible treatment 

Drs. Alan Tinmouth and Dean Fergusson are contributing to the global effort to determine if plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 (called convalescent plasma) could be an effective treatment for actively infected patients. When someone becomes infected with COVID-19, their immune system develops antibodies against the virus. After they have recovered, these antibodies remain present in their plasma to shield them from possible future infection. In theory, these antibodies could be transfused into people with an active COVID-19 infection, to help them fight off the virus. The trial will be conducted by the Canadian Transfusion Research Network in collaboration with Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Québec who will collect and test convalescent plasma in adults (CONCOR-1 study) and children (CONCOR-Kids study).

Predicting COVID-19 in populations

Dr. Doug Manuel and his colleagues in partnership with Ottawa Public Health have created an interactive website ( that predicts various scenarios around the number of hospitalizations and deaths in Ottawa due to COVID-19. The methods they are developing will help advance COVID-19 projections worldwide in addition to helping with local planning. They plan to refine their methods and develop better approaches to predict the effects of different levels of physical distancing. These projections will be invaluable in discussions around easing physical distancing restrictions.

  • Research team at The Ottawa Hospital/uOttawa: Dr. Doug Manuel
  • External collaborators: Ottawa Public Health
  • Core Resources at The Ottawa Hospital: IQ@TOH

Repurposing existing drugs and finding new ones 

Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo and his colleagues have developed a novel “bio-sensor” that can identify drugs that block the COVID-19 virus from attaching to cells, thereby preventing infection. First, they plan to test this novel approach on a library of more than 1,000 small molecules that have been approved to treat other diseases. Then they will attempt to identify novel antivirals drugs from a library of more than 200,000 small molecules.

The Ottawa Hospital is one of Canada’s top learning and research hospitals, where excellent care is inspired by research and driven by compassion. As the third-largest employer in Ottawa, our support staff, researchers, nurses, physicians, and volunteers never stop seeking solutions to the most complex health-care challenges. Our multi-campus hospital, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, attracts some of the most influential scientific minds from around the world. Backed by generous support from the community, we are committed to providing the world-class, compassionate care we would want for our loved ones. 

Media Contact 

Amelia Buchanan
Senior Communication Specialist
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Office: 613-798-5555 x 73687
Cell: 613-297-8315