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Celebrating Vancouver’s Innovative Contributions Against COVID-19

As BC moves into Phase 2 and businesses cautiously reopen, settling into the normalcy of quarantine during a global pandemic can feel a bit like a sci-fi movie. But one thing that Hollywood didn’t predict, is the incredible way that people have come together to support each other. Whether you are a healthcare provider, an essential worker or continuing to practicing social distancing in small pods, we are all playing our part to support our global community. In addition to this collective effort, scientists and research groups from all over the world are combining their talents and creativity to support the fight against COVID-19. Check out these 5 innovative research projects happening right here in Vancouver.

Artificial Intelligence 

A team of Vancouver General Hospital radiologists and UBC medical students are collecting, evaluating, and labeling thousands of CT scan images and chest x-rays. This collection of visual data from the Middle East, Italy, South Korea, and Canada will be used to train artificial intelligence (AI) to detect the presence of COVID-19 by identifying patterns in the images. A model of the AI will be piloted at the Vancouver General Hospital with a goal to improve the accuracy of COVID-19 diagnosis and predict which patients will need more serious interventions. The model will be available to health-care providers and researchers anywhere in the world through an open-source licence. 

Antibody Treatment

Vancouver based biotech company AbCellera has partnered with an American pharmaceutical company Eli Lily to create an antibody treatment for COVID-19. Unlike a vaccine, that introduces an inactive version of the virus to the body so the immune system will produce antibodies to target it, antibody treatments helps the immune system identify the most effective antibodies for neutralizing the virus. AbCellera has already identified over 500 antibodies that the immune system uses to specifically target the SARS-CoV-2 virus, in the blood sample of a recovered patient. Antibody treatment is also faster than producing a vaccine, AbCellera’s CEO Carl Hansen told CTV news, while vaccine development can take years. They hope to begin human testing of their antibody treatment in July. 

A Low-Cost Ventilator

A team of graduate students from UBC’s engineering department have designed a low-cost ventilator to meet the demand caused by COVID-19. Their design uses a BiPAP machine, usually used to treat sleep apnea, modified with simple parts from a hardware store and special software to function as a ventilator. While a traditional ventilator costs between $25,000 and $50,000 this modified BiPAP machine only cost a few thousand. The team, calling themselves FlowO2, have entered their ventilator in the Code Life Ventilator Challenge hosted by the Montreal General Hospital Foundation and McGill University Health Centre. 

Fluorescent Testing Kits

Researchers at Simon Fraser University are lending their innovative RNA imaging technology, called Mango, to develop COVID-19 testing kits. Viruses, like the novel SARS-CoV-2, use RNA instead of DNA as their genetic material. Current COVID-19 tests use a method called PCR that first translates the RNA code into DNA and then copies specific pieces of the code many times until it stands out. The Mango system tags RNA with a specific sequence that binds to their special dye like a magnet. Once the dye is bound it glows a bright fluoresce, making it easy to see if the target sequence is present.

From Life Jackets to Hospital Gowns

Canadian brand Mustang Survival, known for its innovative life vests, survival suits and dry suits, has answered the call for PPE for front line workers. Collaborating with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and BC Apparel and Gear Association (BCAG), Mustang Survival has turned their Burnaby factory into a rapid response facility to prototype a fully waterproof and reusable gown for hospital workers. A pilot run of the first 500 gowns was approved by VCH and the pattern with technical details is now freely available on the BCAG website.


What would it would take to develop a vaccine against COVID-19?

It can take a decade for a new vaccine to be proven safe and effective for broad use in the population, but with concerted global effort, this process may be expedited. We spoke to Dr. Eleni Galanis of the BCCDC to learn more about the search for vaccine candidates.