VANCOUVER -- In addition to her usual accounting of provincial statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic and reminders about how best to stop the spread of the virus, Dr. Bonnie Henry spent several minutes of her daily briefing Saturday discussing coronavirus research British Columbia has been funding.

Henry said B.C.'s Ministry of Health has allocated $2 million to the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research to fund work related to COVID-19. The foundation is the province's health research funding agency. It provides grants to researchers whose work helps improve the health of British Columbians.

Henry highlighted four specific areas of COVID-19 research the province has funded so far, and added that research will continue to be a key component of the provincial response to the virus over the coming months and years.

"This is really an important part of our toolkit to help us get through this first wave of COVID-19 and to help ensure that we know what to do and how we can do it as this pandemic progresses," she said.

The four projects Henry highlighted are:

  • tracking the transmission of the virus in B.C.
  • understanding the underlying susceptibility of the province to the virus,
  • developing a vaccine,
  • and tracking the effects of what the World Health Organization calls the "infodemic" of misinformation about the virus online.

Tracking transmission of COVID-19

The first aspect of research B.C. has funded deals with tracking the transmission of the virus in the province, Henry said.

"That is contributing to the modelling that we have presented as well as the more dynamic modelling, a more detailed model that we'll be talking about in the coming weeks," she said.

As of Saturday, there had been 1,203 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the province, though that number includes only those who have tested positive. B.C. has focused its testing on those who are at higher risk, particularly health-care workers, seniors and those with underlying health conditions.

Understanding B.C.'s susceptibility

A project to understand the "baseline susceptibility of people in British Columbia to COVID-19" will allow the province to be systematic in its approach to future testing, Henry said.

She described this project as putting "the building blocks in place" to support tests that will show who has had the virus already and is immune to it, which will help with future modelling.

Developing a vaccine

Henry said there are currently at least 25 ongoing efforts around the world to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. British Columbia is using part of its research funding to aid those efforts.

Understanding the 'infodemic'

This project is aimed at studying "the myriad of information that is out there on social media, on other platforms, and how that affects people's behaviours through this pandemic," Henry said.

According to the World Health Organization, "infodemics are an excessive amount of information about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution." They allow misinformation, disinformation and rumours to spread and can hamper public health responses by creating confusion and distrust among the public.

More research coming

In addition to those four existing projects, B.C. will be funding future research on the coronavirus through the Michael Smith Foundation, which will open its first call for project submissions on April 6.

In a news release, the ministry said the call will be the first of several, and that the foundation will be looking for "projects that could provide high-quality scientific research to help B.C. get through the first wave of the COVID-19 epidemic safely and effectively, and that could help prevent a significant return in the future."

At her briefing Saturday, Henry described some of the research the province is looking to fund, including a "rapid evaluation of the public health countermeasures."

"How well are we doing with things that we have put in place, like travel restrictions, like the cancelling of in-classroom teaching in schools, like the distancing measures that we have been putting in place across society?" Henry said.

The province is also interested in projects looking at B.C.-specific epidemiology that looks at specific subpopulations within the province.

"All of these are really ways to bring the brightest minds and researchers that we have across B.C. together and to link them with our colleagues around the world and across the country," Henry said.