The University of Toronto employs over 20,000 faculty members and teaching assistants across its various disciplines, and each year, over one billion dollars in research funds are awarded to the university from different sectors. As COVID-19 entrenches itself into our daily lives, the work of researchers is more important than ever. This article will provide a brief overview of the contributions of U of T researchers in helping stop the spread of COVID-19 such as researching how to isolate and characterize the novel coronavirus, developing antivirals, and modelling of programs which help track the spread.
Out of a $27 million federal investment into COVID-19 research that was announced in early March, the University of Toronto received approximately $6 million. This funding has been allocated towards researching how to develop rapid and low-cost diagnostics for testing, designing statistical models which formulate hypotheticals to help predict disease transmission, and producing antiviral compounds. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health have developed an interactive online tool which assists hospitals and other health-care providers in determining their capacity to manage a certain number of COVID-19 cases. Nathan Stall, a Ph.D. student at Dalla Lana, presented the online tool during a webinar, describing how “the tool [can] determine the maximum number of new COVID-19 cases that a health-care system can manage.”
Isha Berry and Jean-Paul Soucy, Ph.D. students at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, have also developed an online dashboard which tracks COVID-19 cases in Canada. Berry had been collecting Canadian data through an open spreadsheet on a global dashboard when she recognized the need for a tool that focused on Canada. Epidemiologists Ashleigh Tuite and David Fisman from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health have published research that concluded that the spread of COVID-19 originated in November, a month earlier than originally believed to be. They have also published a model available online that allows researchers to test different assumptions about the novel coronavirus, such as how infectious it is and how well control efforts are working.
Dr. Dionne Aleman, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, researches which actions are likely to slow the spread, and by how much, through her pandemic models. Aleman works in the field of operations research and focuses primarily on applications in human health. Since 2011, she has been working on hypothetical pandemics in order to determine how various factors can affect the strain on health-care services. Comparing the impact of COVID-19 with that of the seasonal flu, she says, “COVID-19 has an R0 of ~2.3 while the seasonal flu has an R0 of ~1.3. After 10 ‘rounds’ of infected individuals passing on the virus, the number of infected people for seasonal flu is just 14, while COVID-19 is 4,143. After 20 rounds, seasonal flu [results in] 190 infections, while COVID-19 [causes] 17.1 million.”
Another innovative researcher tackling the novel coronavirus is Dr. Roman Melnyk, a senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children and an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto. He is part of a team at the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research that is working on developing antivirals that can combat the novel coronavirus outbreak. Melnyk’s teams was part of the research teams that received funding from the federal government to address the COVID-19 outbreak. On the changes he has experienced since the outbreak, Melnyk says, “We went from not working strictly on antivirals before this to now having three full-time employees plus myself working on this. We are obviously anxious about this whole situation and eager to make an impact through our research.”
While the near future may seem uncertain and be a source of anxiety, it is important to find ways to relieve stress. Melnyk, an avid runner, has “been running even more over the past couple of weeks, which is a great stress relief for [him] personally.” Amidst the stress and pressure, University of Toronto researchers continue to find new ways to stay ahead of a virus that is spreading across the world.