The creation of COVID-19 Health Research Coalition ‘started with a phone call’

Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy, Vice President of Research, Innovation & Discovery and Chief Nurse Executive at Nova Scotia Health
Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy, Vice President of Research, Innovation & Discovery and Chief Nurse Executive at Nova Scotia Health

On March 22, 2020 when the Province of Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency to address the global pandemic, it was clear that COVID-19 was a concern for Nova Scotians. 

How would they protect themselves and their loved ones? What would happen if they got sick? What about their jobs and their incomes? 

Nova Scotia’s research community was feeling similarly anxious. 

Hospitals had shut down non-emergent, non-COVID related services including surgeries. In fact, seventy per cent of clinical trials and research studies were put on hold to enable the redeployment of resources to the COVID mitigation effort. 

After years of researchers assembling highly-skilled teams, they were now faced with the challenge of keeping their research teams and staff together. 

Around the same time, Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy, Vice President of Research, Innovation & Discovery and Chief Nurse Executive at Nova Scotia Health was in daily – if not hourly – conversations with her health care colleagues. 

In their lifetimes, there had never been a greater need for medical and health related breakthroughs, yet there was a need to suspend ongoing clinical trials. 

“It all started on a phone call with Bill Bean, (former) President and CEO at QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation,” recalled Dr. Tomblin Murphy. “Nova Scotia has some of the best infectious disease experts in the country. How could we redirect and support them in their efforts to better understand COVID-19 in real-time, as it’s developing? Where do we get the funding? Is it even possible?” 

That call was the first of many. 

From there, they invited others into the conversation, including funding and research partners: Dalhousie University’s Medical Research Foundation and the Faculty of Medicine, local hospital foundations including the Dartmouth General and IWK, as well as Research Nova Scotia. Each of those groups called on their own contacts, including donors, for funding and participation. 

“Every time I made a call, I thought there’s no way they are going to say yes, but everybody was so excited about helping. They kept saying yes. This was unprecedented,” said Dr. Tomblin Murphy. 

For the first time, the research and innovation community that has traditionally competed for funding, was now working together to launch a coordinated COVID-19 research response. 

Within a few days, the newly-named Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition had agreed on the priority areas – health system decisions, vaccine development, novel treatments, developing devices and tools and social response to the pandemic – and raised $1.5 million in their efforts to catalyze research efforts. 

The timeline was unthinkably short. The call for grant applications went out on a Friday and submissions were due back to the group by the following Wednesday. 

By the following week, the coalition had received 262 submissions and went to work reviewing the proposals, ultimately awarding 40 grants to COVID-19 related projects whose goals aligned with the strategic priorities of the member organizations. 

The grants ranged in size from $3,000 to $75,000 and covered a wide variety of compelling and innovative studies that share the common goal of making a significant impact on COVID-19-focused health care in Nova Scotia. 

There has never been a greater need for the research community to come together to conduct medical and health related research. According to Dr. Tomblin Murphy this experience has been unique, defined by collaboration rather than competition. 

This article was originally published in Nova Scotia Health Research and Innovation annual report 2020 (pdf)