COVID-19: ‘There was no reason to think [Canada would] be spared in a major way’

| August 1, 2020 | 0 Comments

Mona Nemer is the chief science adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as to the minister of science and cabinet. She’s charged with ensuring that science factors into policy decisions and that government science is available to the public. Prior to taking on this role in 2017, after Canada had been without a chief science adviser since 2008, she was a professor and vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa and director of the school’s Molecular Genetics and Cardiac Regeneration Laboratory. She has a PhD in chemistry from McGill University and did post-doctoral training in molecular biology at the Institut de Recherche Clinique de Montréal and Columbia University. A leader in molecular cardiology, she has discovered several genes essential for normal heart development and function. She sat down with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell, to talk about COVID-19.

Diplomat magazine: When did you first start talking to the prime minister about COVID and what was your initial advice?
Mona Nemer: Well, when things were happening in China, towards the end of January, beginning of February, we started talking about being prepared for [this] emerging virus, and more broadly, on the science and research front. As soon as the government set up a special COVID-19 cabinet committee, I set up the experts’ group of multidisciplinary scientists to advise us on the very fast-progressing science of COVID. [In the group], there are epidemiologists, mathematicians who do modelling, psychologists, risk people as well as virology and infectious disease clinicians — so it’s really multidisciplinary.

DM: Did you expect it to develop to the point of lockdown?
MN: I was hoping that we wouldn’t need to do this, but realistically, just seeing what was happening in other countries, there was no reason to think that we’d be spared in a major way.

DM: Do you advise on COVID relief measures or do you stick to the scientific questions?
MN: We’ve advised on a number of the issues — it’s the science and the evidence that will support certain measures. Early on, the committee identified socio-economic hardship, as well as stress increase, possible increases in domestic violence, issues with homeless people, and so on. At times, we provided specific advice and other times, we just made sure there were no blind spots.

DM: What is your best guess for when we’ll be able to start fully socializing again?
MN: Oh, I don’t dare guess anything. There have been criteria that have been developed and accepted by various governments and countries as well in terms of when you ease measures. It has to do with the situation of the epidemic itself — decreasing the number of cases and ideally [seeing] very few new cases — the capacity of the health-care system as well to cope with any eruption in COVID cases, while it’s caring for non-COVID patients as well. Unfortunately, people are still getting sick from other diseases. The third [criteria] is the ability to test and trace. That is really essential because this is how we’re going to be able to maintain a lid on another rapid propagation. But I don’t think we’re going overnight from one to the other. You have to ease measures and then look at the outcome. And as for the outcome, we’re not going to see it for two to four weeks — which is why most governments are doing that first easing and then waiting two to four weeks. That’s how long it’ll take to see the effects in the community.

DM: What is your best guess for when we’ll be able to travel domestically and internationally?
MN: I think that’s another level of complexity. It’s one thing to go back to work and for businesses to open. And, as you’ve been hearing, there are a number of measures that need to be put in place — be it at stores or at workplaces. When you start talking about commercial travel — whether trains, planes or airports — then you get into another new complexity because you have to watch for what’s happening in each country in terms of the infection, but you also want to protect those who work in those settings and you also want to make sure that you’re not causing any new epidemics because you’re importing cases that are not controlled. You have the control of the travellers, but you also have the control of the environment.

DM: How optimistic are you that a vaccine will be found?

“You have to ease measures and then look at the outcome.” (Photo: James Park)

“You have to ease measures and then look at the outcome.” (Photo: James Park)

MN: I think we’re all trying to be optimistic. Vaccine development is [difficult]. It’s not an exact science. The immunity is different for different viruses and [there are different methods for the ways] that we’re trying to vaccinate. Sometimes you luck out and sometimes you don’t. In the case of HIV, we’ve been looking for a vaccine for what — 20-some years, at least. In other cases, you manage to have a vaccine [for Ebola, for example.]
There are over 100 vaccine developments, so statistically we should be able to have a few — a handful or more. I think the question is once you have safe and effective vaccines, it’s the next step of the production — to do mass vaccination. So there are a multitude of scientific and research and development challenges, but I think the mobilization for vaccine development is unprecedented and hopefully it will pan out.

DM: The way it’s happening is unprecedented?
MN: It is absolutely unprecedented. You have all the major pharmaceuticals working with governments across the globe to develop and test. The private sector, but also governments, are putting in considerable investments because vaccine development is very pricey. It is totally unprecedented.
DM: Are you seeing any that seem promising yet?
MN: It’s too early to say. There have been some that have been tested in animals or in vitro. Phase 1 and 2 are for safety so that is hopeful, but even if it’s safe, it doesn’t guarantee necessarily that it’s effective, and [then there’s] the level of effectiveness and how many times do you need booster shots and stuff like that. On the scale of pessimistic to optimistic, I think the developments so far are encouraging.

DM: Do you consult with international counterparts?
MN: Absolutely. We’ve been having weekly meetings among 12 of the science advisers or their equivalents. And, of course, we have a number of bilaterals, depending on the issues to be discussed. I’m in regular touch with my counterparts in the U.S., U.K., France.

DM: How many hours are you working these days?

“Vaccine development is [difficult.] It’s not an exact science.” (Photo: James Park)

“Vaccine development is [difficult.] It’s not an exact science.” (Photo: James Park)

MN: All days look the same. I don’t know any more when the weekend is. I laugh when people send me emails Monday morning saying they hope I’ve had some time to chill this weekend. Guess what? No, I haven’t! I’ve worked very hard all my life, but I can tell you, it’s nothing like the intensity we’re going through and I’m putting my entire team through this. Many of them were on task force calls over, say, the Easter weekend and on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s tough. I’m grateful to all of them. I think we’re doing our share. Many people are working very hard.

DM: Are you in touch with your counterpart in China as well?
MN: In China, they don’t have a chief science adviser. They have a minister of science and technology, but in terms of science and research, I think the collaboration has extended to all countries, including to China and, as you know, one of the first vaccines that has received Health Canada approval for early-phase testing is a collaborative vaccine between China and Canada. I’m actually hoping that this unfortunate health crisis, which is reminding us that we’re all in it together, [raises awareness that] these science and international collaborations are critical. If we still have hotspots in one part of the world, we’re all at the same sort of risk of reigniting it. I think we all need to work together.

DM: Do you see this unfortunate crisis as improving that communication?
MN: Scientists have always worked internationally and the reason things are happening fast on the international front with respect to research is because these networks and these collaborations have existed and have taken place in terms of other research initiatives. I think they have accelerated and I think that one of the great things about how we’re managing the research output in the present situation is through open science and because everybody is basically publishing right away and putting out their research data and results, putting it up for scrutiny, but also inviting collaboration so people know who’s doing what and I think it has facilitated a lot of interactions in addition to making available the latest results for decision-making, to use as they manage the crisis. It’s been a very interesting dynamic between research and policy decisions and co-ordination of national and international [research] in many areas. You asked about travel — Canada can decide what we’re going to do in our airports, but we need to coordinate with others because our planes will land there and their people will land at our [airports] so we have to work together and it needs to be grounded in science.

DM: With which countries is Canada partnering on a vaccine — you mentioned China, but are there others?
MN: We have ongoing talks with the U.K. and we’re starting some with France. We’re open for business and we’re happy to collaborate with whomever. Of course, there are things that are ongoing as well with the U.S.

DM: Did the complete genetic karyotyping support or refute purely natural origins of the virus?

“I think we’re doing our share. Many people are working very hard.” (Photo: James Park)

“I think we’re doing our share. Many people are working very hard.” (Photo: James Park)

MN: It supports it. There’s no evidence from the sequence. If it’s a virus that was manipulated, you’d expect certain signatures and you don’t see them. Then, the frequency of mutation of the virus is also consistent with what would be expected from a normal biologic virus.

DM: We do see the odd article that disagrees with that.
MN: Yes, unfortunately, that’s the other thing. There’s a lot of misinformation in this pandemic because things are going very fast and there’s a lot of anxiety as well. It’s why it’s very important for scientists to be speaking up and engaging in a meaningful dialogue with the public. We all need to do it in our respective countries because misinformation [is] like a virus. It may start somewhere, but it travels the planet.

DM: What is your response to the controversial assertion that COVID-19 is a blend of genes such as SARS and HIV?
MN: HIV is a completely different type of virus. It’s a DNA virus, it’s not an RNA virus and SARS, of course, is the closest relative [to COVID-19]. That’s why it’s called SARS COV-2. And then the previous SARS is SARS COV-1. They’re very related. Again, it’s very frequent in the animal world to have very related genes and proteins.
DM: Have any Canadian scientists been allowed to enter Wuhan labs to work with Chinese scientists, especially as the virus mutates?
MN: I’m not aware of that since the beginning of the pandemic, [but] I’m not aware of the activities of all Canadian researchers.

DM: How is the virus mutating?
MN: There are variables happening. They are, so far, inconsequential in terms of the proteins that are produced by the virus and its activity, but that, of course, could change with time.

DM: Is it correct that there are several strains (NY strain from Europe and Spanish strain to the West Coast?) Which predominate in Canada?
MN: They’re called variants rather than strains; strains is a little bit different. It’s actually very different in different parts of the country. In Quebec, most of the cases are actually traced back to the U.S. and Europe. The first cases of COVID-19 infections in British Columbia came from China, however overall, the primary source of infections in B.C. has been shown to have come from Europe, Eastern Canada and Washington state. I’m not certain about Ontario.

DM: Do you expect a vaccine in 2020?

The virus had different strains. In B.C., where this closed playground is located, the strain came from China. (Photo: Premeditated chaos)

The virus had different strains. In B.C., where this closed playground is located, the strain came from China. (Photo: Premeditated chaos)

MN: The question isn’t whether we find a vaccine, it’s at what stage is it? If we’re extremely lucky, and we accelerate things, we may be able to start Phase 3 trials in 2020. That would be really pushing it. I think when people ask if we’re going to have a vaccine, we may well have a vaccine, but it may be totally ineffective. We might have a vaccine and then realize that upon infection, it kills people. There have been vaccines that are toxic in that, instead of blocking, they can compound the effect of infection. Are we going to have a vaccine that immunizes us against COVID? Everybody says if we’re fortunate, it’s 12 to 18 months, which means another year.

DM: What if we don’t find a vaccine?
NM: We have to qualify what never finding one means. Never finding one means our body doesn’t produce antibodies. It could also produce antibodies that disappear very quickly or that don’t protect us enough. It’s all these different qualifiers that need to [be studied]. Some of the hopeful news that has come out in terms of the immunological response to the virus actually bodes well for natural immunity for sure, and for being able to have an effective vaccine. We have some encouraging signs as we start understanding better the immune response to the virus.

DM: What is your assessment of a second and ongoing series of “waves” as little-by-little Canada returns to normal work, school and business operations. China reportedly is experiencing this.
MN: My educated guess is we’re going to have further waves. Whether they’re waves or eruptions, we’ll be challenged to [curtail] them. As long as there are people who are infected, the possibility of this spreading again is there. Remember, initially we had only a few cases in Canada. This is why it’s just so important to have really high capacity for testing, to trace the contact, manage the people. It is possible to maintain things under control, so we don’t have to go back in lockdown, but we have to expect that there will be new hotspots or eruptions in certain settings and [figure out how] to minimize them. Maintaining some of the physical distancing is important. But the hygiene infection control is really the important thing individually and at the level of institutions and workplaces. Wash your hands, [follow] sneezing etiquette, avoid getting too close to too many people. Minimizing close contact is feasible when you’re being sociable again. Wear a mask in public places where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

DM: Are there fast tests on the near horizon, such as urine tests, to detect the virus?
MN: There are already a number of point-of-care tests available that provide results very quickly, some in the 15- to 30-minute range. With many more tests in development, it will be important to ensure that they are reliably sensitive and specific before we use them to inform public health measures.

DM: Can a person be re-infected after recovery? Is antibody protection short-lived or is it ineffective against mutated COVID-19 viruses?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control certified this COVID test kit. Several countries are working on tests that will yield results more quickly.  (Photo: U.S. Centers for Disease Control)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control certified this COVID test kit. Several countries are working on tests that will yield results more quickly. (Photo: U.S. Centers for Disease Control)

MN: It is still too early to tell. These are the types of questions that the research co-ordinated by the COVID-19 immunity task force will try to answer. Currently, evidence from animal studies suggests that most recovered individuals would have some level of immunity against the COVID-19 virus, but we don’t know how long-lasting or how robust that immunity is.

DM: Is there a formal organization of chief science advisers of the G7 nations, for example?
MN: Chief science advisers and ministers of science from G7 countries have organized workshops (on microplastics, for example) and I have been meeting regularly with my international counterparts since the onset of this pandemic, but there is no formal organization. Among the G7 countries, only Canada, the U.K. and [although not entirely analogous] the U.S. have a chief science adviser position.
There are also several international networks and events that convene science advisers, such as the Global Forum of National Advisory Councils, the Carnegie meeting and the STS [Science and Technology in Society] Forum, with the most active being INGSA [the International Network of Government Science Advisers.]

DM: What do you think of the WHO’s performance during COVID?
MN: It is important to have an organization like the WHO to lead global health surveillance and help co-ordinate international response to a pandemic. In the months ahead, there will be evaluations of national and international organizations to look for improvements before a future pandemic occurs.

DM: Do you get involved in questions such as whether Taiwan should be allowed observer status at the WHO?
MN: No, I am not involved.

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