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Interview: Coordinating Covid

Charu Kaushic on lessons learned from chairing a global network of funders through the pandemic

On 11 February 2020, Charu Kaushic was at a meeting at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva where hundreds of researchers, funders and regulators were sharing knowledge about a novel virus spreading from China. The disease it caused was given the name Covid-19 that very day.

The meeting shaped the WHO’s crucial Covid-19 R&D Blueprint, setting the agenda for which research questions were most urgent. Kaushic, who is scientific director of the Institute of Infection and Immunity of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, started tweaking the CIHR’s Covid-19 funding calls on her flight home, she says.

Kaushic also chairs the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), an alliance of funders set up to coordinate an international research response when an emerging disease shows the potential to trigger an epidemic. Big players such as the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, the African Academy of Sciences and the United States Department of Health and Human Services are all members.

She says the R&D Blueprint meeting was a fantastic example of global cooperation but that there was too little coordination on how it was implemented in different countries. This led to duplication such as multiple clinical trials asking the same questions.

“The horses all left the stall at the same time—there was no country that wanted to wait and see where the gaps were,” she says. “That is probably a lesson learned and something for us to think about.”

GloPID-R helped to raise the alarm on Covid-19, Kaushic says, after holding its first meeting on the disease in December 2019. Most of its members are national funders, who passed on information to governments and other organisations in their home countries. “I know personally for me, and I’ve heard this from others, that the coordination and the early warning that this was serious was very helpful,” she says.

Progress and priorities

GloPID-R has only two African members, and China is not represented. Kaushic says the alliance has a good working relationship with China and that it often works with non-members. Even so, one of her priorities is to increase the membership, “especially regional membership, so we can be the eyes and ears for all the funders, as many as we can”.

Kaushic credits the successes of GloPID-R during Covid on the preparedness work it had already done and on its close relationship with the WHO. She describes the speed at which science has moved since the start of the outbreak as “kind of like a scientist’s dream”.

“We made remarkable progress compared to the fact that on 30 January we were still figuring out what we should name this virus,” she says. But while the research world responded better to Covid-19 than to Ebola in 2014 and Zika in 2015, Kaushic suggests there is more work to be done. 

“I think we got away a little bit easy on this—not that having millions of people die is not devastating, but it could have been much worse,” she says. “Imagine if this was more infectious, more deadly, affecting more children, for example—the devastation would have been at a whole different level.”

Looking ahead, Kaushic floats the idea of a global pool of government funding for infectious disease research that could react at the start of an outbreak to prevent the need to spend time coordinating responses across borders. “What would it take? A systemic change—an agreement for everybody to put that insurance money in a pot.”

For Kaushic, thinking through such mechanisms is going to be an important part of picking up the pieces after the pandemic, so that the world is ready for the next one. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe