July 16, 2021

UCalgary team contributes to national research for future pandemics

Early warning and response systems proposed under ‘One Health’ model
Graphic produced as part of a modelling study on the transition back to in-person university classes during the coronavirus disease. Robert Brennan

As the world continues to battle COVID-19 through social distancing and vaccinations, university researchers are coming together to work on solutions for future pandemics.

In early April, the federal government announced a $10-million investment, aimed at building a network of researchers and collaborators to better predict, prevent and respond to emerging health crises.

The One Health Modelling Network for Emerging Infections (OMNI)/RÉseau UNe seule santé sur la modélisation des InfectionS (REUNIS), led by Dr. Huaiping Zhu at York University, received $2.5 million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented emerging infectious disease crisis with the spread of COVID-19, and we need to evolve accordingly,” Zhu said. “The OMNI network will focus on developing models and capacity to inform prevention, surveillance and response. We will ‘follow the bug’ from its place of origin to its introduction and establishment.”

Some of the key research being done will happen at the University of Calgary.

Stopping the spread early

Over the next two years, several members of the Schulich School of Engineering will work alongside teammates from the Cumming School of Medicine, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Faculty of Science, Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Law as well as colleagues from across the country.

Dr. Michael Kallos, PhD, Dr. Kerry Black, PhD, and Dr. Herman Barkema, PhD, are part of the management team, with Kallos co-directing the Development of Highly Qualified Personnel, Black co-directing the Indigenous Peoples Health and Well-Being, and Barkema as a member of the Board of Directors.

“This is a great example of transdisciplinary work,” Kallos said.

We have assembled a team here with expertise in biomedical engineering, One Health, modelling, public health, veterinary medicine and science, that will be at the leading edge of the important work being done across Canada.

Black agrees with how important it will be to have different backgrounds working together on a common goal.

“It highlights the need to tackle health from multiple viewpoints,” she added. “The grant also recognizes that in order to tackle health-based problems, we need to bring a diversity of people around the table.”

Empowering communities

Black says Canada’s Indigenous communities experience a disproportionate burden of disease, as evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the unique characteristics of each community need to be addressed.

“We want to know what factors contribute to different rates and pathways for disease spread in Indigenous populations,” Black continued. “We also want to know how improved non-invasive monitoring strategies and early detection can empower communities and enhance self-determination.”

    Visualization shows three different ways of showing uncertainty in predictive models for COVID.

    Visualization shows three different ways of showing uncertainty in predictive models for COVID.

    Usman Alim

    She adds the team also wants to find out how response and mitigation can be informed by the data provided to limit spread and contain viruses at the earliest point of detection.

    “There is a critical next step to utilize transdisciplinary investigative methods informed by Indigenous research methodologies to determine the social determinants of health that impact the rate and spread of disease for Indigenous populations,” Black said. “That includes a focus on how these factors impact those populations, and how this information can better inform disease modelling approaches.”

    Barkema says it is essential for infectious diseases, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, to be addressed using a One Health approach. “It is really promising that the G7 countries recently declared that as well,” he stated.

    Working together as transdisciplinary teams, as we do at One Health at UCalgary, is the way to go to prevent, detect and stop these infectious diseases, and tackling other complex problems at the convergence of people, animals and the environment.

    The OMNI/REUNIS Co-ordination and Management Team includes Sana Tariq (BME Calgary Initiative) and Michele Anholt (One Health at UCalgary).

    OMNI/REUNIS researchers include:

    • Herman Barkema* – Director, One Health at UCalgary
    • Kerry Black* – Schulich School of Engineering and Director, Biomedical Engineering Calgary Initiative
    • Michael Kallos* – Schulich School of Engineering
    • David C. Hall – Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
    • Ethan MacDonald - Schulich School of Engineering
    • Frank van der Meer – Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
    • Gias Uddin – Schulich School of Engineering
    • Ian Lewis – Faculty of Science
    • Jean-Christophe Boucher – Faculty of Arts
    • Karin Orsel – Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
    • Lorian Hardcastle – Faculty of Law
    • Lynden Crowshoe – Cumming School of Medicine
    • Mea Wang – Faculty of Science
    • Michael Parkins – Cumming School of Medicine
    • Rita Henderson – Cumming School of Medicine
    • Robert Brennan – Schulich School of Engineering
    • Roman Shor – Schulich School of Engineering
    • Svetlana Yanushkevich – Schulich School of Engineering
    • Tyler Williamson – Cumming School of Medicine
    • Usman Alim – Faculty of Science

    The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives innovations that are saving lives and revolutionizing health care for Canadians. With collaborative teams focused on human mobility, health monitoring, advanced biomedical imaging, precision biodiagnostics, regenerative medicine and novel medical technologies, our researchers are transforming quality of life and continuously improving the health system.

    The vision of One Health at UCalgary is “improved health and well-being for people, animals and the environment.” Complex problems such as disease emergence are characterized by interacting human and natural systems, each shaped by social, economic, and political realities. A One Health approach finds solutions co-developed from various disciplinary backgrounds and cultural perspectives. Our transdisciplinary, collaborative teams focus on finding effective and sustainable solutions to contain the threat of antimicrobial resistance, develop strategies to recover and protect global water ecosystems, create effective strategies against infectious diseases and exploit the protective benefits of the microbiome, and learn how to address complex issues that impact community health and wellbeing.