CoVaRR-Net (Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network)’s goal? Rapidly answer critical and immediate questions regarding variants, such as their increased transmissibility, likelihood to cause severe cases of COVID-19, and resistance to vaccines.
We are a network of interdisciplinary researchers from institutions across the country created to assist in the Government of Canada’s overall strategy to address the potential threat of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. Our mandate is to coordinate, facilitate, and accelerate rapid response research throughout Canada.
In Year 1, we created mechanisms that were desperately needed in the Canadian research community to simplify and accelerate the sharing of physical research resources, data, and knowledge, for this pandemic and the next. In Year 2, we are expanding them, making it even easier and faster for researchers to get what they need to promptly study new SARS-CoV-2 variants in Canada.
CoVaRR-Net’s Major Initiatives:
- The CoVaRR-Net Biobank and Data Platform: Our Biobank enables network members across Canada, and industry partners as needed, to quickly access patient samples (e.g., blood and saliva), viral isolates, biological research materials, and information. The CoVaRR-Net Data Platform supports the storage, management, and access of metadata associated with materials in the Biobank.
- CoVaRR-Net’s Wastewater Surveillance Research Group (WWSRG): At the beginning of the pandemic, estimates of the virus’s spread in Canada were done, for the most part, using PCR test results. As a surrogate to individual testing, wastewater monitoring became very successful at offering an aggregated view of the virus load in the general population of a region with upticks preceding hospital admissions by several days. However, wastewater surveillance was sparse across the country, and there were no standard procedures. The WWSRG brings together Canadian wastewater and environment investigators from universities across Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada/National Microbiology Laboratory, and provincial wastewater surveillance programs. It aims to establish best practices for wastewater testing and surveillance here in Canada and around the world.
- The Canadian Consortium of Academic Biosafety Level 3 Laboratories (CCABL3), created by CoVaRR-Net: When the pandemic hit, researchers in Canada did not have a complete understanding of where many of the Biosafety Level 3 laboratories (with the ability to handle live SARS-CoV-2 virus) were located in Canada, or what the research capabilities of these facilities were. CCABL3 is changing that by bringing together all Canadian academic Biosafety Level 3 laboratories to share resources, training procedures, and information to provide rapid support to Canadian authorities when facing new emerging biological threats.
- We have put in place a Universal Data and Biological Material Transfer Agreement (UDBMTA): Signed by more than 26 Canadian research institutions, this agreement facilitates the rapid and lawful sharing of reagents and data so that researchers can work collaboratively and efficiently on their research projects.
- CoVaRR-Net has also created CIEDAR (CoVaRR-Net’s Indigenous Engagement, Development, and Research Pillar 7) to ensure that Indigenous voices are heard during the current pandemic, as well as all future pandemics. CIEDAR is building relationships with Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, collecting stories of lived experiences to understand commonalities and supporting communities to effect change.
- CoVaRR-Net’s CAMEO (Computational Analysis, Modelling and Evolutionary Outcomes) uses computer modelling and simulations to evaluate the genetic evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants and how quickly they propagate in the Canadian population. They also help to flag variants of Canadian origin, highlight current variants of interest, and investigate differences in selection acting upon various lineages among regions of the country. In addition, our group works to address emerging bioinformatic and computational tool needs.
Our network continuously monitors Canadian and international virus sequencing efforts and emerging variants, making it a critical element of the Canadian ecosystem for the surveillance of variants. We work collaboratively with the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory, Genome Canada, provincial and territorial public health labs, and other national and international bodies.
Our network’s findings inform federal, provincial, territorial, and regional public health decision makers, helping to guide their response in an effort to reduce virus transmission and keep Canadians safe.
CoVaRR-Net was created with a $9 million investment in March 2021 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and was offered a funding renewal of another $9 million in March 2022, as part of the Government of Canada’s Variants of Concern Strategy.
Helping to Prepare for Future Pandemics
CoVaRR-Net believes it is essential to plan for future pandemics, whether they will be caused by viruses or microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi.
That is why it is currently laying the foundations to eventually morph into a Pandemic Prevention and Preparedness Network that will foster close ties, collaborations and relationships with public health laboratories and industry — because everyone’s contribution is critical during a pandemic.
CoVaRR-Net is structured with ten themes or “Pillars”, seven assessing a different biological aspect of variants, and three focussed on Indigenous communities, public health impacts, and ensuring findings are quickly and efficiently communicated to decision-makers, scientists, and the general public.
Pillar 1 | Immunology & Vaccine Protection
Investigating how the immune system responds to emerging variants and assessing the effectiveness of vaccines against them.
Pillar 2 | Host-Pathogen Interactions
Exploring the interactions between SARS-CoV-2 variants and different host species to understand infection and disease, both in the laboratory and the field.
Pillar 3 | Virology
Evaluates the virus’ features in cells and animals. These include measuring infectivity, pathological effects, and vaccine and immune resistance in animals.
Pillar 4 | Functional Genomics & Structure-Function of VOCs
Studying different areas of the viruses & how they interact with cells, investigating viral protein structures and functions & how they interact with human proteins.
Pillar 5 | Viral Genomics & Sequencing
Reads each variant’s genetic code and looks at the relationships between the sequences of the parent virus and the variants.
Pillar 6 | Computational Analysis, Modelling and Evolutionary Outcomes (CAMEO)
Using computer modelling and calculations to evaluate the genetic evolution of variants and how quickly they propagate in the Canadian population.
Pillar 7 | CoVaRR-Net’s Indigenous Engagement, Development, and Research (CIEDAR)
Building partnerships with Indigenous communities and working collaboratively with the upcoming Indigenous Network for VOC in multiple areas.
Pillar 8 | Public Health, Health Systems & Social Policy Impacts
Studying the impacts of the variants on public health, our healthcare system & on social policy, and reporting these findings to decision makers and government officials.
Pillar 9 | Knowledge, Implementation and Training Team (KITT)
Connecting all activities from the other seven Pillars and quickly and efficiently sharing findings in order to best advance discoveries and inform decision and policymakers.
Pillar 10 | Antiviral Strategies and Antiviral Therapeutics
Identifying and profiling effectiveness of leading antivirals alone or in combination against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants and other human viruses with pandemic potential.
Together, the roles of the Pillars are to:
- Identify, analyze and predict upcoming VOCs;
- Use and devise new communications channels to inform government decision makers of our results;
- Deploy knowledge mobilization strategies in Canada and abroad;
- Establish communication channels with Indigenous partners and communities, as well as with the upcoming Indigenous Network for VOCs; and
- Incorporate equity and inclusion as foundational values in all operations to ensure it is not siloed and inform all CoVaRR-Net decisions pertaining to equity-deserving groups.