Dr. Riam Shamma knew the closure of Canada’s border with the United States would make getting samples of his company’s newly developed, potential vaccine for COVID-19 to the U.S. a challenge.
But as his temperature-sensitive shipment to an American testing facility sat at the border for day after day last month, he became increasingly anxious.
Finally, the cargo made its way through, but by the time Shamma’s U.S. partners opened the box, the ice had melted, the serum spoiled.
“Words don’t convey how devastated we were,” said the CEO of Montreal’s Intellistemtech Technologies. “It sets you back about five to six weeks.”
But it was just one obstacle that he and some other Canadian scientists say the pandemic lockdown has inadvertently put in their way, ironically as many pivot from other research to coronavirus work.
Inflated charges for contracted-out animal studies, backlogged supplies, limited government grants and battles with university administration are among the challenges, Shamma and others say they are facing.
The pandemic has in many ways triggered a remarkable response from the scientific community worldwide, with myriad studies launched in record-fast time on possible treatments, tests and vaccines for COVID-19.
In Canada, the federal government reacted quickly with funding for private business and academic researchers on a variety of projects.
But for those who are not part of large companies or richly funded university labs, the decision to shut down wide swaths of the economy has triggered a “crisis,” they say.
Universities, like other institutions and businesses, were asked to close their doors, which has included stopping work at laboratories not directly focused on COVID-19.
This is going to have serious long-term ramifications
A draft letter signed by 60 “early-career” bio-medical researchers from universities across the country pleads for funding from the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) to help shuttered labs. Such action is “critical for both the present and future of Canadian research,” the letter says.
“Many drug-development processes have been stopped, experiments have stopped, clinical trials have been suspended,” said Shamma. “This is going to have serious long-term ramifications.”
A professor at one prominent Canadian university said on Wednesday that closing his laboratory, while still paying staff and graduate students assigned to it, means a waste of $10,000 in grant money a month. A mouse colony that normally numbers 1,000 has dwindled to 100 without active breeding and will take months to replenish, he said.
And while not directly applicable to coronaviruses, his immunology-related research is the type that could well help against COVID-19, said the scientist, who asked not to be named to avoid possible repercussions from university administration.
Dr. Riam Shammaa says his Montreal-based bio-tech company, Intellistemtech Technologies, has developed a COVID-19 vaccine, but he and other Canadian scientists are facing multiple obstacles because of the pandemic lockdown.
“One of the tough things is that competitors internationally have not shut down their labs and we feel that we might lose an edge in our respective fields,” he said.
“Competitors have been working, and we are kind of in the dark as to when we can come back, and in which capacity.”
Another health-science professor, who also asked that his name be withheld, actually shifted from work that focused on cancer and infectious disease to developing a COVID-19 vaccine, but it wasn’t easy.
“I had to fight with the faculty to have access to my lab,” he said. “The university tells you if you don’t have a COVID-19-specific grant, well your lab has to shut down. How am I supposed to be able to help if I’m not able to work?”
Like others, he lauded the Canadian Institute for Health Research for rapidly funding almost 100 coronavirus projects, but complained they were mostly large grants to a relatively small number of prominent labs.
A better approach would have been to spread the funding out in smaller sums to more researchers, creating a larger pool, for instance, of potential COVID-19 vaccines.
How am I supposed to be able to help if I’m not able to work?
But Adrian Mota, CIHR’s associate vice president of research, said the number of grants was still large given how many applied – 227 – and the agency wanted to make sure winning groups had sufficient funding.
“These things are always a delicate balance,” he said. “You want to give people enough money that they can do meaningful research, impactful research.”
As for those labs forced to close down, CIHR plans to give them some funding to cover the cost of students and other lab employees during the lockdown, said Mota.
Shammaa’s two-year-old, privately funded, bio-tech start-up has developed a possible COVID-19 vaccine using genetically engineered stem cells.
As well as the hold-up at the border, the company has faced delays of two to three weeks to receive proteins and other research material that could be obtained next-day before the lockdown, he said.
And with many facilities that perform animal studies closed down, those still open seem to be charging a premium, said Shamma, who’s also a physician. One Canadian university asked for $300,000 to conduct a small study of his vaccine, compared to pre-pandemic prices that would have been $60,000 to $200,000, he said.
“You find yourself scratching your head,” said Shamma. “We anticipated support, but the answer we got was more of a business approach.”
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