Pre-Announcement: CIHR Funding for SARS-CoV-2 Variant Research

The SARS-CoV-2 variants supplement funding opportunity (Initiative 1) is now available on ResearchNet (Application deadline : February 23, 2021)

The CIHR Network for Emerging Variants Research funding opportunity (Initiative 3) is now available on ResearchNet (Application deadline: March 08, 2021)

CIHR would like to provide the research community with information about the upcoming launch of a rapid research response, comprised of three separate but linked initiatives, designed to contribute to global efforts to address SARS-CoV-2 variants.

We are providing preliminary information at this time to allow the research community to continue to mobilize and respond to expedited processes. More information will be shared as it becomes available.


On December 14, 2020, authorities of the 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.1.1.7Footnote 1. Preliminary epidemiologic, modelling, phylogenetic and clinical findings suggest that SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 has increased transmissibilityFootnote 2,Footnote 3,Footnote 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, which is rapidly spreading in South AfricaFootnote 5. In January 2021, two new strains of SARS-CoV-2 have been reported from BrazilFootnote 6,Footnote 7,Footnote 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, most of these strains have been shown to have higher transmissibility. The B.1.1.7 strain, for instance, has a 50-70% higher transmission rateFootnote 2,Footnote 3. There is emerging evidence that some of these new variants have the ability to decrease the effectiveness of natural and vaccine-induced immune responsesFootnote 9,Footnote 10. Both the strains 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 infectionFootnote 11,Footnote 12,Footnote 13. These new strains of SARS-CoV-2 have spread to dozens of countries across the world including Canada and have now been associated with outbreaks.

Given these observations, the increasing presence of known SARS-CoV-2 variants in Canada, and the urgent need to monitor the emergence of new variants, CIHR is planning a rapid research response to address this issue. Between now and the end of March 2021, CIHR will make targeted investments into Canadian research on SARS-CoV-2 variants. Specific areas of interest include the biological characterization of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants to inform clinical management and evolving public health initiatives, and to provide critical, time-sensitive understanding of emerging variants to inform therapeutic and public health strategies.  These investments will also enable the assessment, in near real-time, of both the immune response to emerging variants and immune escape from existing vaccines and thus will serve to provide decision makers with rapid guidance regarding drug therapy, vaccine effectiveness, and other public health strategies.

To inform this response, CIHR has undertaken rapid but comprehensive consultations. This includes deliberations from the working group of experts convened by the WHO R&D BluePrint team, a focused consultation regarding research needs and gaps with pre-eminent Canadian researchers with deep expertise spanning a broad range of disciplines critical to the characterization of the variants, feedback from the broader community of researchers in this area and the CIHR Science Council.

Moving forward, CIHR will invest up to $25M to fund three complementary initiatives. The funding provided for these initiatives is new from the Government of Canada and not taken from any existing CIHR initiatives (e.g., the Project Grant Program).

Initiative 1: Supplementary funding for CIHR funded COVID-19 researchers studying variants

This funding opportunity will be launched within the next week and will provide two streams of supplementary funding for Nominated Principal Applicants (NPA) funded through one of CIHR’s previous rapid COVID-19 competitions with:

  • Stream 1: Up to $50,000 to accelerate research (relevant to any pillar/research area) related to emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants; and
  • Stream 2: Up to $100,000 to lead the formation of a SARS-CoV-2 variant network to begin coordinating and aligning work in this space. It is anticipated that the networks will span a broad range of research areas and may include, but are not limited to, in silico modelling, functional genomics, in vitro and in vivo characterization, immunological assessment, and health systems, public health and social policy impacts.

To be eligible for either stream, funded COVID-19 NPAs must show clear evidence of current work on SARS-CoV-2 variants or are able to rapidly incorporate the study of variants into their existing COVID-19 research to show impact within 3-6 months. This initiative is open to research from all areas of research. An NPA may submit an application to one of or both of the streams. The application process will consist of the development of a 2 page proposal and budget for stream 1 of funding and a 1 page proposal and budget for steam 2 of funding.

Initiative 2: Priority funding of applications focusing on SARS-CoV-2 variants

Leveraging the Fall 2020 Project Grant competition, CIHR will invest in applications specifically addressing SARS-CoV-2 variants across all pillars of research. Nothing is required from applicants to the competition at present and additional details will follow in the coming weeks.

Initiative 3: Funding of a CIHR Network for Emerging Variants Research (previously called the Canadian Network of Networks for SARS-CoV-2 Variant Research)

CIHR will launch a funding opportunity in the coming weeks to provide up to $9 million funding for a national network of networks focused on all four pillars of SARS-CoV-2 variant research. Specifically, up to $6M will support the establishment of a single CIHR Network for Emerging Variants Research and up to $3 million will enable the rapid support of research activities required to swiftly characterize and assess the individual and population health threats of emerging VOCs. As the pandemic evolves, CIHR may consider providing additional funding. The funded entity is expected to coordinate the networks and fill gap areas so that it is composed of interdisciplinary teams that integrate biomedical, clinical, population health and social science researchers working together on emerging variants. It is anticipated that the networks will span a broad range of research areas and may include, but are not limited to, in silico modelling, functional genomics, in vitro and in vivo characterization, immunological assessment, and health systems, public health and social policy impacts.

The combined expertise will enable Canada’s research community to deliver on all aspects of the characterization of emerging variants, in a rapid, coordinated, and open fashion. It is expected this investment will result in the characterization of biologically-meaningful emerging SARS-CoV2 variants that could affect human health and the mechanism(s) by which they do so. This will inform ongoing research initiatives, clinical care, public health systems and policy formulation in a time sensitive manner using the principles of open science.

As such, the national network will work synergistically and seamlessly with the (developing) VOCN (variants of concern surveillance network) composed of National Microbiology Laboratory, provincial public health laboratories and networks and Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network CanCOGeN that are focused on epidemiological and genomic sequencing surveillance to complete the whole spectrum of SARS-CoV-2 variant research

The delivery of this initiative will be patterned on the successful process implemented for the development of a Network of Clinical Trials Networks which was completed within 6 weeks, that facilitated the collaboration and coordination of research on interventions to prevent, detect, manage, and/or treat COVID-19. Details for this initiative will be announced shortly with the target anticipated application deadline around the end of February 2021.

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