The global pandemic has gripped the public consciousness and is understandably top of mind for most of us these days. From lockdowns to face masks to social distancing, COVID-19 has instigated societal transformations unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes.
As Canadians, we can take pride in knowing that our researchers have been at the forefront of the global fight to stop the spread of the virus, and that our research institutions responded quickly and made the necessary investments to protect our health.
As we continue the full-court press against SARS-COV-2 and its emerging variants, now is also the time when we must look to the future and begin to prepare for the next pandemic or next major health crisis that will be coming our way. The growing threat of antimicrobial resistance comes to mind as a poignant example. Long before COVID-19, the research community had already been sounding the alarm about the dire need for the global community to develop new ways to eliminate bacterial infections, as our existing antimicrobial drugs are becoming increasingly ineffective. This looming public health crisis has not abated while the world turned its attention to the coronavirus.
While the rapid development of vaccines stands as a monumental scientific achievement and a testament to humanity’s ability to achieve great things when we work together, we also know that these viruses are with us forever, that they will continue to mutate, and that we must remain vigilant in our collective efforts to control them. In response to this need, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will be supporting the creation of a new Centre for Pandemic Preparedness and Health Emergencies. While planning for the centre is still underway, we are envisioning a collaborative leadership model that would enable a co-ordinated approach to generating research evidence and facilitate the translation of that knowledge into real-world solutions.
CIHR has also developed a new strategic plan that speaks to this need to bolster Canada’s capacity for rapid research response to ensure that we have the tools and processes in place to protect our population from future pandemics. At the same time, the plan positions CIHR to fulfil its mandate to improve the health of all Canadians by supporting the entire spectrum of health research – from fundamental biomedical research at the subcellular level through to research on improving health systems. Importantly, this plan takes a long-term approach. The impact of our research is realized over years and the complex public-health issues we will face, both known and unknown, will not be solved with simple fixes.
In developing the strategic plan, CIHR heard clearly that Canadians fundamentally value equitable health outcomes for all. We have known for many decades that our environments and experiences as infants, children and adolescents significantly impact our health outcomes later in life. We know that socioeconomic factors weigh heavily on health outcomes while, at the same time, we know that we are also living longer than ever before. In the past, attaining the age of 100 was considered to be anomalous good fortune. Today, the number of 100-year-olds is on the rise and yet we know very little about the health and biology of this population. We do know, however, that comorbidities become evermore present as we age, and thus our aging populations have made this a worldwide issue of growing concern.
The good news is that CIHR has in place a strategic plan for research that will allow us to coordinate research investments and support a broad array of research programs to address all of these issues and many more. It is a plan that values all aspects of health research – from fundamental cell biology to public health policy development – and seeks to maximize the extraordinary talent of Canada’s health research community in service of our country’s most pressing needs.
Reflecting on the many health challenges that we face can feel overwhelming at times. However, with the help of some careful planning, the challenges come into clearer focus, our collective confidence increases, and we see the path to creating a healthier future.
Michael J. Strong is president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.