Banding together for pandemic research

Pandemic catalyzes innovative approach to accelerate Canada’s COVID-19 research efforts

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the world, and academic research institutions have certainly felt its impacts, pivoting to adjust to a new normal with downgraded on-site activities. While the pandemic brought its share of constraints on research activity, it also created new opportunities for innovative collaboration, catalyzing research institutions across the country to work better together. 

Thanks to a UHN-led collaboration, research involving biospecimens – e.g. samples of material, such as blood, tissue, or cell lines – as well associated data can be streamlined among health care organizations Canada-wide, with the ability to facilitate a wide range of clinical and research studies.

The initiative, dubbed the COVID-19 D/MTA*, began within just weeks of pandemic declaration, led by Commercialization at UHN and the Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN), who very quickly mobilized to streamline inter-institutional activities related to biomaterial transfer within the greater Toronto area. Over the next few months, other institutions in the province joined the effort and in early 2022, a national invitation spurred nearly 40 signatory institutions across Canada to join, significantly expanding the network and the ‘fast track’ approach across the country.

A simple, flexible approach

While a traditional transfer of biomaterials between organizations sometimes includes extensive documentation exchange, legal reviews and negotiations before the transfer can occur, the COVID D/MTA offers a simple, flexible templated letter that all signatory partners adopt. This significantly reduces the administrative burden on inter-institutional research collaboration and thus accelerates much needed team science on COVID-19.

Any two member organizations can make use of the templated letter to fast track the exchange of biological samples and/or associated data, with UHN organizing the ongoing national effort to gain and track signatories.

Participating organizations include most major Canadian universities and hospitals and research centres, public health agencies from across the country, including several members of the British Columbia Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), the New Brunswick Regional Health Authority and the Ontario Agency for Health and Promotion (Public Health Ontario). The network is growing in real time as research initiatives open up and continue, and the initiative is open for others to join.  A list of current signatories is available here.  

“This collaboration—whose inception was at UHN—is strengthening Canadian research and partnerships across the country,” says Brad Wouters, Executive Vice President, Science and Research, University Health Network. “The initiative can be likened to a universal COVID-19 research pass. By helping us to rapidly enable research partnerships, it has become a vital tool for supporting life science research. During the pandemic, we were reminded that we are in this together, and the COVID-19 D/MTA, through fostering inter-institutional collaboration, has strengthened our ability to work together and bring benefits to patients.” 

“Over the past two years, the expertise and dedication of researchers, clinician-scientists and teams from Ontario’s hospitals have resulted in remarkable breakthroughs in the fight against COVID-19,” said Anthony Dale, President and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association. “As we begin planning for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, renewed support for research and innovation is more important than ever before. Research is critical to advances in the delivery of health care and there is a growing appetite to expand research and innovation across the full hospital network. Given Ontario’s size and diversity, there is a real opportunity to utilize the entire hospital system, focusing on where there is unmet clinical need and unanswered questions.”

“Our programs lead research that improve health outcomes not just in British Columbia, but for all Canadians. We are pleased to partner with University Health Network and other national leaders across the country to fast track our common research activities,” says Ellen Chesney, Chief Administrative Officer – Research, British Columbia  Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA). “As part of this effort, we have access to a flexible legal letter that works for both B.C. and Ontario from the legal perspective, offering autonomy to activate options without extensive legal conversations. This is exactly the type of partnership that allows research to progress coast to coast without barriers.”

*Short for the COVID-19 Master Data & Biological Sample Transfer Agreement – a national research collaboration using a universal letter template