Operating Grant : CIHR Network for Emerging Variants Research

Well-being, Health and Biomedical Discovery


Academic Unit:

Memorial Deadline: Wednesday 3rd, March 2021

External Deadline: Monday 8th, March 2021


This funding opportunity is part of the Government of Canada’s continued rapid response to address the health challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding will enable a rapid and timely research response to the current phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada and around the globe. This funding opportunity is focused on research associated with the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, specifically to determine and define their biological relevance in order to inform public health and health systems strategies. The need for this funding opportunity was informed by ongoing World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, as well as CIHR’s consultation with a national expert panel of SARS-CoV-2 Canadian researchers, feedback from the broader community of researchers, and CIHR’s Science Council.


On December 14, 2020, public health authorities in United Kingdom reported a SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern (VOC) to the World Health Organization (WHO), now referred to as the SARS-CoV-2 strain B.1.1.71. Preliminary epidemiologic, modelling, phylogenetic and clinical findings suggest that SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 has increased transmissibility, with reports demonstrating a 50 to 70% higher transmission rate2,3,4. Shortly after the reports from the United Kingdom, national authorities in South Africa announced the detection of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 501Y.V2, now known as B.1.351 strain, which is rapidly spreading in South Africa5. In early January 2021, two new strains of SARS-CoV-2 were reported from Brazil6,7,8. Many of these new variants are showing mutations that are common between two or more strains. While studies are still ongoing to examine if these new strains are associated with increased disease severity, some have demonstrated higher transmissibility. There is also emerging evidence that some of these new variants have the ability to decrease the effectiveness of natural and vaccine-induced immune responses9,10. Both the P.1 strain that was first observed in Brazil and the B.1.1.7 strain have been associated with re-infections, indicating that the new strains are capable of immune escape from immune responses generated by natural infection11,12,13. These new strains of SARS-CoV-2 have spread to dozens of countries across the world including more than 135 cases of B.1.1.7 and 13 cases of B.1.351 in Canada (as of February 2, 2021) and have now been associated with outbreaks.

In response to the increasing presence of known SARS-CoV-2 variants in Canada, and the need to track, and respond to, the emergence of new variants that may arise within the Canadian population, the Government of Canada is taking a whole-of-government approach to drive a proactive real-time, large-scale, coordinated monitoring and research effort for SARS-CoV-2 genomes and variants. Timely detection of novel VOCs in Canada will be key to understanding the broader implications of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants, timely adaptation of clinical and public health strategies including vaccine rollout, and informing public health and health systems responses. The National Microbiology Lab (NML) in partnership with Provincial/Territorial Public Health Laboratories and the Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network (CanCOGeN) a Genome Canada-led consortium, leads the genomic epidemiological surveillance effort through the Variants of Concern Network (VOCN). The VOCN brings together integrated teams and infrastructure in public health and clinical expertise to proactively search for and rapidly characterize VOCs in epidemiologically critical populations (e.g. immunocompromised, cases of reinfection, post-vaccination infection, severe disease, returning travellers, superspreader events). (see schematic representation of inter-relationships between these groups).

As part of this whole-of-government effort, CIHR has mobilized three separate but linked initiatives (a combined investment of up to $25M) designed to contribute to national and global efforts to address SARS-CoV-2 variants. Recent CIHR targeted investments were aimed at accelerating research (relevant to any pillar/research area) relating to emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants to provide critical, time-sensitive understanding of emerging variants to inform biological, clinical, health system, and public health strategies and, to lead the formation of networks dedicated to SARS-CoV-2 variants to begin coordinating and aligning research in this space. The networks will span or combine a broad range of pillars/research areas which may include, but are not limited to, in silico modelling, functional genomics, in vitro and in vivo characterization, immunological and vaccine protection assessment, and health systems, public health and social policy impacts. This investment is expected to build a foundation for coordinated SARS-CoV-2 variants research in Canada and create a single interdisciplinary CIHR Network for Emerging Variants Research.

Through this funding opportunity, CIHR will provide up to $9M to support the creation of the CIHR Network for Emerging Variants Research. The combined interdisciplinary expertise across pillars/research areas of the networks will enable Canada’s research community to deliver on all aspects (biomedical, clinical, health systems services and population health) of SARS-CoV-2 emerging variants, in a rapid, coordinated, inclusive and open fashion.

The successful network will be expected to build cohesion in both research and surveillance efforts, to coordinate the overall SARS-CoV-2 emerging variant research efforts, to facilitate research processes (including but not limited to rapid and timely data sharing, sample sharing, ethics, common protocols) and to respond rapidly to emerging research needs. This will be achieved by close interactions with existing national and provincial networks and initiatives, and through the inclusion of the new networks emerging from other arms of CIHR’s SARS-CoV-2 variant research response. The overall goal is to provide rapid, critical, time-sensitive understanding of the biologically-meaningful emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants and their public health relevance. This investment will enable the assessment, in near real-time, of both the immune response to emerging variants and immune escape from existing vaccines and evaluate their potential impact on health services and population health. In the end, this will provide decision makers with rapid evidence from which guidance regarding vaccine strategies, clinical management and other public health strategies can be developed.

Additional information can be found at ResearchNet.

Funding Sources

Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR)

This opportunity was posted by: RGCS

Last modified: February 15, 2021