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On March 22, when the Province of Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency to address the global pandemic, it was clear that COVID-19 was a concern for Nova Scotians. How would they protect themselves and their loved ones? What would happen if they got sick? What about their jobs and their incomes?

Nova Scotia’s research community was feeling similarly anxious. Hospitals had shut down non-emergent, non-COVID related services including non-urgent surgeries. Seventy percent of clinical trials and research studies were put on hold so the health care community could respond as the virus spread and the situation grew more serious. After years, of coalescing highly-skilled teams, they were now faced with the challenge of keeping their research teams and staff together.

Around the same time, Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy, Vice President of Research & Innovation at Nova Scotia Health Authority was in daily – if not hourly – conversations with her health care colleagues. In their lifetimes, there had never been a greater need for medical and health-related breakthroughs, yet there was a need to suspend ongoing trials.

“It all started on a phone call with Bill Bean, CEO at QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation,” recalls Tomblin Murphy. “Nova Scotia has some of the best infectious disease experts in the country. How could we redirect and support them in their efforts to better understand COVID-19 in real-time, as it’s developing? Where do we get the funding? Is it even possible?”

That call was the first of many. From there, they invited others into the conversation, including funding and research partners: Dalhousie University’s Medical Research Foundation and the Faculty of Medicine, local hospital foundations from the Dartmouth General and IWK, as well as Research Nova Scotia. And each of those groups called on their own contacts, including donors, for funding and participation.

“Every time I made a call, I thought there’s no way they are going to say yes, but everybody wanted to help. They just kept saying yes.” Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy, VP Research & Innovation, Nova Scotia Health Authority

“Every time I made a call, I thought there’s no way they are going to say yes, but everybody was so excited about helping. They kept saying yes. This was unprecedented,” said Tomblin Murphy. For the first time, the research and innovation community that has traditionally competed for funding was now working together to launch a coordinated COVID-19 research response.

Within a few days, the newly-named Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition had agreed on the priority areas – health system decisions, vaccine development, novel treatments, developing devices and tools, and social response to the pandemic – and raised $1.5 million in their efforts to catalyze research efforts. The timeline was unthinkably short. The call for grant applications went out on a Friday and submissions were due back to the group the following Wednesday.

“The QEII Foundation immediately approved participation in the coalition because of the respect we have for our partner organizations, the urgency of the need to combat COVID-19, and the alignment with our mission, which is to advance healthcare.” Bill Bean, CEO, QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation

By the following week, the coalition had received 247 submissions and went to work reviewing the proposals, ultimately awarding 40 grants to COVID-19 related projects whose goals aligned with the strategic priorities of the member organizations. The grants range in size from $3,000 to $75,000 and cover a wide variety of compelling and innovative studies that share the common goal of making a significant impact on COVID-19-focused healthcare in Nova Scotia.

There has never been a greater need for the research community to come together to conduct medical and health-related research. According to Tomblin Murphy, however, this experience has been unique, defined by collaboration rather than competition.

“Academic competition has always been a part of medical and health research where each group is competing for the same funding opportunities. But this was so different. It has brought researchers together in their thinking and in their actions.” Gail Tomblin Murphy, VP Research & Innovation, Nova Scotia Health Authority

The vision for NSHA’s Health Innovation and Discovery Hub is to focus on providing the very best healthcare to Nova Scotians, with one body at the centre to lead and facilitate a variety of partnerships between foundations, patients, clinicians, researchers, private industry, academia, and government departments across the province. “We’ve gone from taking the model through the approval processes and hoping people would see the value in partnership and collaboration, to using the model,” said Tomblin Murphy of the Hub. “We use it. It works. And now, it’s one of the most important things we do.”

The Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition brings together research leaders and foundation partners from across the province. The Coalition includes:

  • Nova Scotia Health Authority
  • IWK Foundation
  • Dalhousie University
  • QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation
  • Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation
  • Dartmouth General Hospital Foundation
  • The IWK Health Centre
  • Research Nova Scotia
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