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  • President's Message

Science is our exit strategy

by Alan Bernstein May 7 / 20

The COVID-19 pandemic is primarily a health issue, but it is also a social, economic, and political one.

We have seen unprecedented disruptions to economies, education systems, and the social fabric of our communities. Emergency powers have been enacted in many jurisdictions, and epidemiological terms like “flatten the curve” and “R-naught” are now the subject of dinner table conversations.

How do we fight this virus? Short of physical distancing, hand washing, and ventilators for those who are very seriously ill, there are no effective treatments, nor is there a preventative vaccine. In the short term, lockdowns and contact tracing have been effective in limiting transmission, but in no country can we say with confidence that COVID-19 has been eliminated. This virus is challenging every aspect of humanity’s well-being, and addressing it will require a global, concerted, and unified effort, with science at its core.

This crisis has challenged every organization, including CIFAR, to rethink its vision, strategic plan, and modus operandi. Our model is fundamentally based on convening the world’s greatest scientists and scholars to create global communities to address questions of importance to science and humanity. With a global lockdown, our research and knowledge mobilization teams have been actively engaged in virtual meetings of our global research teams since March 13, when we started working from home.

We rapidly began a radical rethink of our 40-year tradition of focusing on big, long term questions. We haven’t dropped that tradition, but we have added to it. Our house is on fire and it is time for all organizations to use the knowledge, skills, and assets at their disposal to address urgent facets of this pandemic. For CIFAR, this means using our convening power to bring the best researchers and policymakers together to understand the virus and how to defeat it.

Science is our best hope to end this pandemic. Science is our exit strategy.

On March 23, we convened a virtual roundtable of more than 70 scientists from six countries to discuss how advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can help in the urgent fight against COVID-19, and we followed that up with a virtual policy briefing for Canadian and international policymakers to exchange up-to-the-minute updates and insights. 

We also launched our first competition round of AI and COVID-19 Catalyst Grants to support cross-disciplinary collaborations. These grants will support research projects that use AI to address various facets of the pandemic, from studying potential treatments, to supporting public health measures like social distancing, and better understanding viral transmission of COVID-19.

Our COVID-19 Action Fund was recently launched and has already received tremendous support.

During the course of the pandemic, contact tracing, the procedure where all contacts of someone who is COVID-19 positive are notified and quarantined to prevent further spread of the virus, will become necessary. This is a laborious and imperfect process. But it is possible to take advantage of the technological capabilities of our smartphones to semi-automate this process. CIFAR fellows and Canada CIFAR AI Chairs are leading teams developing contact tracing apps that can track the likelihood of infection based on the locations you’ve visited. The apps can also help public health officials identify possible clusters of outbreaks. This technology can be a vital step in helping people make more informed choices about self-isolation while the search for a vaccine is underway.

These types of applications, and other proposed ways to trace chains of transmission, come with risks to privacy. For that reason, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, asked CIFAR to convene a group of frontline caregivers, scientists, and legal, ethical, and policy experts to advise her on the best way to safely and responsibly deploy strategies like contact tracing apps and immunity passports.

I am heartened to see the quick action the entire CIFAR research community has taken to respond to COVID-19. Every day I hear stories of our fellows, Canada CIFAR AI Chairs, advisors, and Azrieli Global Scholars retooling their labs and finding important ways to contribute. As always, our biggest questions can be answered when we mobilize, collaborate, and accelerate important scientific discoveries across fields.

For more information on CIFAR’s COVID-19 initiatives, or to support our COVID-19 action fund, I encourage you to visit our website.

We depend on your support to carry on the important work that we do, whether that’s understanding the origin of the universe, or as part of the global community of scientists who are working collaboratively and around the clock to develop the drugs and vaccines that the world needs to end this pandemic.

DR. ALAN BERNSTEIN, O.C., OOnt., PhD, FRSC/MSRC
President & CEO, CIFAR