How science is bringing Canada back to life


By Mona Nemer

Canada’s scientists stepped up like never before during the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to flatten the curve and pave the way towards reopening. But with vaccines still months away, researchers are also showing us how to live safely with the virus in our midst.

The cloth mask has become the pre-eminent symbol of life in the COVID era. Masks are everywhere now, and as they become ingrained in our daily social routines, they can even begin to grow on us. They come in all sizes and colours, often in beautiful patterned fabrics. Many carry a message or slogan. Some are homemade, some are designer-stitched. We start to recognize friends and colleagues by their masks. And the more ubiquitous they become, the more effective they are at hindering the spread of coronavirus.

Cloth masks have enabled our individual and collective lives to take an important step towards normalcy, and provided some helpful stability to the process of reopening of our economy.

They also happen to be the result of a massive and coordinated international scientific inquiry, one that would have been highly improbable just six months ago.

At the outset of the pandemic, it was unclear whether cloth masks were effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19, because no one had studied the issue. Like so much of COVID-era science, the study of masks quickly became a kind of relay race, with one scientific discipline handing its results off to the next. Environmental scientists and engineers teamed up with infectious disease researchers to conduct simulations in chambers with fluorescent dyes, calculating the distance that COVID aerosols and droplets could travel. Materials scientists then conducted experiments using different types of fabric in different combinations and thicknesses to determine which were most effective at preventing the virus from spreading. Behaviourists studied the social barriers and incentives to wearing masks. And mathematicians constructed models based upon all those results, to predict masking’s impact on disease transmission.

At every step, researchers published their findings openly, and every subsequent step was taken up and built upon by scientific teams around the world. Some of those teams were already in place, but many others came together rapidly, as scientists mobilized and cobbled together the expertise needed to help manage the pandemic.

And as it went with masks, so it has gone with nearly every aspect of COVID science. New types of ventilators are now being manufactured thanks to the work of respirologists, physicists and design and process engineers. The procedure for the decontamination of N95 medical masks was the combined work of materials scientists, microbiologists and engineers. Testing technologies were developed thanks to the work of virologists, geneticists, and biochemists; from there, public health physicians and epidemiologists established the test-trace-isolate model for containing the virus’ spread. Throughout the pandemic, these efforts have been supported by substantial, targeted government investment in COVID-related research.

Over the past few months, as the Government of Canada has sought out reliable information on how best to manage the pandemic, Canada’s scientists came forward to lend their expertise. I was struck by the sense of urgency displayed by my peers from all disciplines, across industry and academia, as they devoted their time and energy to assisting policymakers. Across my 30-year career as a scientist, I had never seen anything of that intensity. Others in government, with decades of experience in the public service, told me much the same.

That same measure of commitment is now being applied to the search for COVID treatments, whether in the form of vaccines to prevent infection or antiviral drugs to slow the disease’s course and alleviate its lingering effects. And thus far, we are seeing remarkable progress at a pace never seen before. But even with every effort to shorten timelines, mass vaccination is unlikely to happen before late 2021.

The novel coronavirus will be with us for months to come. We will all remain vulnerable to its spread, and we must continue to fight it, together, with the means that we have.

We all want a full return to normalcy, to a life in which COVID is of no more concern than the seasonal flu. I am confident that science will get us there. In the meantime, science has shown what we can all do to help: masking, physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, and reduced social circles can slow the spread of the virus to a trickle.

These measures are a significant departure from our usual social habits, and they feel like a sacrifice. But they are also simple actions, easily adaptable by one and all in our daily routines. When we adopt them together they become a signal of our care and respect for one another, and when those values take hold we are certain to win the fight.

This article was published in the August 17, 2020, edition of The Hill Times.