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Mobilizing a community

Faculty of Medicine researcher receives nearly $300,000 in national COVID-19 funding

By Michelle Osmond

Memorial is joining the global scientific effort to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

With more than 105,000 cases in 101 countries, researchers worldwide are scrambling to prevent and control the rapidly spreading disease.

To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and its negative consequences on people and communities, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) recently released $6.75 million in a Rapid Research Response Funding Opportunity.

When Dr. Peter Wang, a researcher in the Division of Community Health and Humanities and professor of epidemiology in the Faculty of Medicine, heard about the opportunity, he teamed up with colleagues at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto and applied for the funding.

They succeeded in garnering nearly $300,000 for a study in collaboration with one of the most vulnerable populations in Canada.

Homeland ties

Dr. Peter Wang
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has one of the largest Chinese community in the world.

As a well-known Chinese community leader and epidemiologist, Dr. Wang has already been actively involved in helping the Chinese community in the GTA cope with the growing fear of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Given their high density and their close ties with their homeland, Chinese immigrants in the GTA have become the most vulnerable population in Canada yet the least prepared population for the potential COVID-19 outbreak,” said Dr. Wang. “So, there is an urgent need to prepare and mobilize them.”

With the new funding, Dr. Wang and his team hope to mobilize the Chinese immigrant community to further alleviate fears and develop methods to reduce risks should an outbreak occur in this country.

With China still reporting the largest number of the COVID-19 cases, fear among the Chinese immigrant community coupled with English language obstacles is leading to rumours and misinformation that have exploded on social media, according to Dr. Wang.

“A good example is that some people believe that Chinese people are more susceptible to catch this disease. In one radio interview, a couple of parents asked for my advice if they should let their children stay home.”

Multi-disciplinary team

The goals of the study, which includes researchers from public health (epidemiology), psychology, sociology and health policy, will assess community knowledge; help develop effective epidemic control practices; and identify the psychological impacts of the disease.

The community-based study will include a community advisory committee; an online survey of 500 Chinese immigrants from four GTA regions; establishing and evaluating a volunteer-based mutual support self-quarantine network model; assessing the impacts of a potential outbreak on psychological health and well-being; and identifying the associated predicting factors (individual or environmental).

Dr. Wang says, though, that the research plan might have to be adjusted in response to changes in the progress of COVID-19, which appear to be happening daily.

Community connections

Dr. Wang is no stranger to infectious disease and immigrant health, having previously published research on the hepatitis C virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

His home town of Tianjin, China, was hit hard by the SARS outbreak in 2003.

“At that time, I was holding an adjunct professorship at Tianjin Medical University,” he said. “As an epidemiologist, I was invited to join the research team and offer my expertise. The SARS project produced a number of publications and I was a corresponding author for two peer-reviewed publications.”

Dr. Wang is also well known in the GTA Chinese community and has already been interviewed by news networks in China about COVID-19 and other health topics.

“Without my community knowledge and experience, this project could not get off the ground.” — Dr. Peter Wang

In addition, he initiated fundraising activities to help medical doctors in Wuhan and other parts of China through the Centre for New Immigrants Well-Being, a centre he founded and directs.

He believes his community service, knowledge and connections are essential to this study.

“I knew what was needed and what should and could be done,” he said.

“Without my community knowledge and experience, this project could not get off the ground. For example, I was one of the initiators for the current mutual-support programs in the GTA, which helped me understand its importance and possible implications as part of a national strategy combating the COVID-19 epidemic.”

‘Better prepared’

Dr. Wang expects preliminary results in about two months and plans to use traditional and social media to communicate to communities what they learn.

“This can help individuals reduce the risk for spreading COVID-19 and to effectively cope with possible consequences. We also believe this can be applicable to other immigrant communities and will help the general public in Canada to be better prepared for the potential outbreak.”

Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research), says the new funding allows Memorial to play an important role in contributing to the ongoing global response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The multidisciplinary research led by Dr. Wang will enhance and better inform our understanding of the disease,” he said. “I congratulate Dr. Wang on securing this investment. I also applaud the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for supporting this highly relevant, Memorial-led project.”

On Friday, March 6, Patty Hajdu, minister of Health, and Navdeep Bains, minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced an investment of nearly $27 million to fund coronavirus research. This investment will support 47 research teams from across Canada that will focus on accelerating the development testing, and implementation of measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

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