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Manulife and CIFAR fund six new COVID-19 and population health research projects

The grants enable interdisciplinary research on social, cognitive, and biological implications of the pandemic

The Manulife CIFAR Population Health & Well-being Grant Program will fund six interdisciplinary project teams that push traditional research boundaries and offer new insight into the effects of the pandemic.

“These projects build on decades of partnership between CIFAR and Manulife on population health,” says Dr. Alan Bernstein, O.C., CIFAR President & CEO. “From the long-term effects of COVID-19 on infant microbiomes, on the developing brain, and on child health, to the impact of the global pandemic on our social networks and well-being, they address questions that are crucial to understanding the full impacts of the pandemic.”

The Grants are the latest evolution in CIFAR’s partnership with Manulife, which began in 1987 and coincided with Manulife’s 100th anniversary. Since then, Manulife has provided nearly $3 million in support of CIFAR’s pioneering research in health and social sciences. This work  has informed innovative new policies and practices to improve the health, well-being, and resilience of communities across Canada and beyond.

“As our Government responds to the challenges of COVID-19, it is clear that investments in research are vital. The Manulife CIFAR Population Health & Well-being Grant Program is a great example of the kind of partnership we are proud to support. Canadians will continue to benefit from the innovations of Canadian researchers as a key part of our coordinated approach to fighting this pandemic,” says the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.

“Manulife has taken an active role through COVID-19 on several critical fronts in supporting our customers, partners, and communities. That’s why we’re also proud to partner with CIFAR in their world-leading research. These projects will positively impact the global fight against this pandemic and this type of research will be essential to recovery efforts” says Karen Leggett, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Manulife.

CIFAR is a Canadian-based global research organization that convenes extraordinary minds to address the most important questions facing science and humanity. We are generously supported by the governments of Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec, Canadian and international partners, as well as individuals, foundations and corporations.

How can robots serve vulnerable communities?

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing societies across the globe into different degrees of social isolation to contain contagion. Vulnerable populations in the community are suffering more from the disease as they are more at risk for developing severe illness or complications if they contract COVID-19. Among those most vulnerable to both the disease and to the negative health effects of isolation are the elderly and those with chronic physical or cognitive health conditions. They often rely on assistance for activities of daily living and are sometimes left with minimal to no assistance.

This collaborative project, led by fellows in CIFAR’s Innovation, Equity & the Future of Prosperity program Goldie Nejat (University of Toronto) and Amos Zehavi (Tel Aviv University), will investigate how socially assistive robotic technology might help vulnerable populations in the pandemic, and how innovation policy could be employed to advance this goal. The expertise gained through this project will not only be pertinent during the pandemic, but will inform long-term integration of robots in care settings, allowing us to understand how to best implement them, ensuring they stay accessible and economically viable for daily assistance.

Project title: Innovating for Special Needs in an Era of Social Isolation: Socially Assistive Robots Helping to Combat the Dangers of Isolation for Vulnerable Populations While Promoting Disease Prevention.

Collaborators: Goldie Nejat (Innovation, Equity & the Future of Prosperity, University of Toronto), Amos Zehavi (Innovation, Equity & the Future of Prosperity, Tel Aviv University)

What does COVID-19 do to the brain?

As COVID-19 has spread, there has been little time to understand the neurological impact of infection. There is early evidence that those who develop severe infections often experience cognitive impairment from multiple sources: the virus’s direct effect on the brain, indirect effects from inflammation, and environmental effects caused by time spent in an Intensive Care Unit.

A team led by Koerner CIFAR Fellow Adrian Owen (Western University) and Advisor David Menon (University of Cambridge), both members of CIFAR’s Brain, Mind & Consciousness program, will launch an international study with over 50,000 participants to characterise and quantify the burden of cognitive impairment from COVID-19.

This work will inform recovery and care for those affected by COVID-19, as well as health policy regarding recovery from the symptoms of COVID-19. More broadly, it will also help guide efforts to minimise long-term cognitive impairment from neurovascular, neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases.

Project Title: Cognitive Outcomes after COVID-19 Infection

Collaborators: Adrian M. Owen (Brain, Mind & Consciousness, Western University), David K. Menon (Brain, Mind & Consciousness, Cambridge University)


How are social networks changing because of COVID-19?

COVID-19 has dramatically altered how we behave. New behavioral norms, new social practices, and profound systemic updates may be required to maintain a healthy standard of living, an engaged sense of well-being, and global prosperity. That process will undoubtedly have effects on our connections to each other.

In this project, CIFAR fellows Joel Levine (University of Toronto Mississauga) and Takao Hensch (Harvard University/University of Tokyo) will develop a common analytical approach that will provide deep insights into the developmental and neural basis of social structures. Drawing on expertise in CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program, they will apply tools originally built to study social dynamics in experimental systems in flies, mice, and humans to the new social reality of the post-COVID-19 world.

Project Title: Social Network Analysis Software Pipeline

Collaborators: Joel Levine (Child & Brain Development, University of Toronto Mississauga), Takao Hensch (Child & Brain Development, Harvard University/University of Tokyo)

How are nonprofits innovating and (re)defining the boundaries of community?

The threat of COVID-19 to global health and economic security has both brought people together and separated them. It has produced cross-border innovation, with scientists across the world collaborating on possible vaccines, while enabling exclusion as political leaders and citizens cast blame and debate who should be protected and at what cost. Most attention has focused on the messaging and actions of governments, pharmaceutical firms, and research institutions. 

Yet nonprofit organizations play a vital role beyond the marketplace or government, from providing direct services to amplifying people’s civic voice to enhancing cultural life. Faced with the pandemic, some nonprofits shifted their activities and messaging. Others have hunkered down, seeking to survive and conserve resources and their existing activities.

Bridging the core questions of CIFAR’s Boundaries, Membership & Belonging and Innovation, Equity & the Future of Prosperity programs, CIFAR fellows Irene Bloemraad (University of California Irvine) and Woody Powell (Stanford University) will evaluate the degree to which nonprofits engage in activity innovation or re-imagined membership as a function of demographics, COVID-19 infection rates, political affiliations, and economic resources. 

Project Title: Innovative Inclusion or Civic Exclusion? The Response of Nonprofit Organizations to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Collaborators: Irene Bloemraad (Boundaries, Membership and Belonging, University of California Berkeley), Walter Powell (Innovation, Equity and the Future of Prosperity, Stanford University)


How will responses to COVID-19 affect infants’ microbiomes?

The microbiome lies at the interface between environmental inputs and health outcomes, and early research has shown that COVID-19 disparities are influenced by socioeconomic factors like neighbourhood and occupation, which affect individuals’ ability to stay at home or isolate themselves.

Responses to COVID-19 may also be having important effects on infants’ microbiomes. For example, mothers with suspected or confirmed infection are physically separated from newborns, and skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding may involve the use of facemasks or alcohol-based hygiene products. Further, variation in parents’ adherence to stay-at-home guidelines, often influenced by socioeconomic status, likely impacts the degree to which the infant microbiome is shaped by contact with additional caregivers.

This interdisciplinary study will integrate microbiome and social science research to explore how variation in behavioural responses to COVID-19 influence the infant microbiome. This project, a collaboration between four fellows in CIFAR’s Humans & the Microbiome program,will lay the foundation for a larger future study, including the collection of “post-pandemic” samples for comparison to the ones collected in this pilot study. 

Project Title: The influence of COVID-19 behavioural responses on early life microbial exposures

Collaborators: Katherine Amato (Humans and the Microbiome, Northwestern University), Meghan Azad (Humans & the Microbiome, University of Manitoba), Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello (Humans & the Microbiome, Rutgers University), Melissa Melby (Humans & the Microbiome, University of Delaware)

How will the pandemic affect children’s brains, immune systems, and ability to thrive?

COVID-19 has rapidly and dramatically changed society. As such, the pandemic might leave a vestige on our health and well-being due not only to direct threats from infection with the virus, but also due to enduring stressors linked to the economic downturn and unintended consequences of social distancing policies. As the first few years of life constitute a sensitive period for long-term embedding of experiences and exposures, children might be at particularly high risk from these stressors. 

A cross-disciplinary team of 11 fellows from CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development and Humans & the Microbiome programs, including two Canada CIFAR AI Chairs, will integrate biological, behavioral, and sociological data to assess the long-term effects of the pandemic on children. In order to do this, they will first develop an approach to link datasets about epigenetics, the microbiome, immune-makers, and functional genomics of immune-response with administrative databases. Then, they will create and distribute “at home” kits for citizen scientists to contribute these various types of data. These activities will enable the measurement, evaluation, and long-term follow-up of the “COVID-19 experience” on children at a population level.

Project Title: A bio-ecological integrative approach to understand the “hidden costs” of COVID-19 on children

Collaborators: Michael Kobor (Child & Brain Development, University of British Columbia), Thom McDade (Child & Brain Development, Northwestern University), Brett Finlay (Humans & the Microbiome, University of British Columbia), Jenny Tung (Child & Brain Development, Duke University), Sara Mostafavi (Child & Brain Development, Canada CIFAR AI Chair, University of British Columbia/Vector Institute), Anna Goldenberg (Child & Brain Development, Canada CIFAR AI Chair, University of Toronto/Sick Kids/Vector Institute), Meghan Azad (Humans & the Microbiome, University of Manitoba), Megan Gunnar (Child & Brain Development, University of Minnesota), Dan Belsky (Child & Brain Development, Columbia University), Candice Odgers (Child & Brain Development, University of California, Irvine), Daniel Ansari (Child & Brain Development, Western University)

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