In late March as COVID‑19 cases grew in Canada, it became clear that many Canadians were going to reach out to Canada's business, medical and health care sectors. To help address the needs and requests coming to the NRC, the Community Support Initiative was created.
The initiative acts as a sort of "front door" to the NRC, taking requests and questions and triaging them through to the appropriate research centres, committees, funding programs or challenge programs and brings together subject‑matter specialists from across the NRC to respond to enquiries. When it was established, the initiative was co‑chaired by Aquatic and Crop Resource Development Research Centre Director General Denise LeBlanc and Aerospace Research Centre Director General Ibrahim Yimer. David Murrin, Director General for the Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre has since joined in to help lead the initiative.
To date, the NRC addressed over 600 requests ranging from those seeking advice on standards and testing to those wanting to work with the NRC on projects to combat COVID‑19. The initiative team directed requests to relevant experts, to the NRC's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), to other government departments and to the NRC's Pandemic Response Challenge program.
Through this work, the NRC helped companies work with Health Canada to have them get ventilators approved and manufactured at scale in Canada; advised businesses on manufacturing sanitizer, masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment (PPE); collaborated with universities on new COVID‑19 research projects and more. The initiative also coordinated the NRC's donation efforts, which has seen the supply of much‑needed PPE to support front‑line health care workers.
Several ongoing projects emerged through the initiative to help ensure Canada can meet future demand for test kits.
Diagnostic supply chains
The NRC is providing assistance to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to help build a Canadian supply chain for testing kits. This requires many critical components, starting with devices to collect test samples. Working with several companies, hospitals and universities, NRC researchers are helping to increase the capacity to produce test kits in Canada.
Addressing test swab shortage
The NRC is also answering the call by working with Health Canada, PHAC and the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) to procure swabs for COVID‑19 test kits.
"Swabs are the main collection device to test for COVID‑19, so a shortage of swabs means a shortage of overall testing ability in Canada," says Dr. Teodor Veres, Director of Research and Development with the Medical Devices Research Centre and also a member of the community support team. "Ensuring an adequate supply of swabs during this pandemic is critical to our ability to test."
The project was brought to the initiative through NRC IRAP, which is now working with NRC researchers Dr. Michel Champagne from the Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre and Drs. Veres and Alex Ko from the Medical Devices Research Centre. NRC IRAP had been working with swab manufacturers during the early months of the pandemic, helping to navigate through regulations and the testing process. When it was clear more expertise and advice were required, the initiative team was brought in to help.
"In response to the crisis, a number of manufacturing and tech companies are retooling their operations, including in the automotive sector, while others are building capacity based on emerging manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing," explains Veres. "While they have the equipment, the automotive and health manufacturing industries are very different. Swabs are medical devices used in the human body so companies require accurate and rapid advice and support to ensure they're producing material that meets Health Canada standards."
The team is working with St‑Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg to gain assistance from physicians and nurses to help assess swab prototypes with clinical practice. This is critical to the swab testing and qualification process.
NRC IRAP essential to industry partnerships
Beyond the contributions from the Human Health Therapeutics, Medical Devices, and Automotive and Surface Transportation research centres and from the NRC's Design and Fabrication Services, NRC IRAP has been instrumental in making the link between the NRC and industry to provide advice and liaise on testing and validation.
"There is a great deal of work occurring behind the scenes to ensure the connection to the National Microbiology Lab at PHAC and the NRC to provide support for companies," says Birgit Nielsen, Industrial Technical Advisor (ITA) with NRC IRAP. "The NRC is unique in Canada in that it has the capacity for both medical device research and manufacturing, making the NRC an important partner."
Nielsen explains that NRC IRAP is also working to ensure industry partners are up to date on developments and progress in the fight against COVID. "We've hosted a conference call to help keep companies and partners informed and connected and we're planning more, and we hold daily team meetings to expedite the process for companies. This close collaboration wouldn't be possible without the contributions of ISED and Health Canada.
A Canadian-made solution
Prior to the pandemic, COVID‑19 test components were imported. Now, NRC researchers are helping Canadian industry manufacture them here in Canada.
"There are 30to 40 parts to a test made from different materials that require securing chemical reagents, plastics, magnetic beads, enzymes and so on," says Claude Larose, Business Advisor for the NRC's Medical Devices Research Centre and the community support Lead on Diagnostic Supply Chain. "This is critical for a safe return to activities like work and school (in combination with other health measures), and will help ensure Canadian industry has the capacity to respond to future pandemics as well."
Dennis Sindrey leads the NRC IRAP Diagnostic Subject Expert Team consisting of 11 ITAs with subject-matter expertise in diagnostic assay, medical devices, regulatory and commercial manufacturing in the medical sector.
"The team has reviewed dozens of Canadian firms in the medical sector that can deliver a Canadian-designed test to detect the virus and antibodies showing prior exposure," he says. "This is critical to supporting a made-in-Canada solution and enabling a back-to-work plan. The team works closely with other government departments leveraging the industrial knowledge of IRAP ITAs in solving the problem."
The Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre is leading the preparation of buffers for the test kits, with Dr. Luke Masson and his team leading the charge to find Canadian-made testing solutions. Researchers in the Medical Devices, Aquatic and Crop Resources Development and Automotive and Surface Transportation research centres as well as Design and Fabrication Services are all helping industry to ensure a Canada-made solution to help protect Canadians.
A positive outcome of this work is the increased collaboration between NRC labs and NRC IRAP, and federal government agencies, says Larose. "To be successful, we always need to be sharing information and building on our respective expertise," he explains. "Whether it's between different research centres and IRAP, or the increased collaboration with Health Canada, PHAC and ISED, we're working together every day and this can only help us in the future."