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CIHR funding for COVID-19 enables researchers to investigate virus transmission during surgery and pandemic planning

Researchers in London received more than $400,000 in funding 

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Researchers at Western University and Lawson Health Research Institute continue to make important contributions to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and its negative consequences. Two projects in London will address virus transmission during surgery and pandemic planning for COVID-19, thanks to new funding announced by the Government of Canada, through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), along with provincial partners.

Researchers in London received more than $400,000 in funding through this latest round.

“Accelerating high-quality research and real-time evidence is a priority for Canada in its fight against COVID-19. I congratulate the successful teams for their essential work aimed at better preventing, detecting and treating COVID-19 at the individual and population levels,” said Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health in a press release. “Our government believes that it’s through collaboration and data sharing that we will respond efficiently to this global health emergency.” 

Virus transmission in surgical smoke

In an effort to perform surgery during the pandemic as effectively and safely as possible, Dr. Leigh Sowerby, Associate Professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Associate Scientist at Lawson, will be investigating whether or not the virus that causes COVID-19 can be transmitted in surgical smoke. Surgical smoke is the aerosol produced by an essential surgical tool called electrocautery. 

“Electrocautery is a ubiquitous tool for surgery, and is known to generate aerosol and smoke. We do not know if the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be transmitted in this plume, and this is important to answer for all surgeons, but in particular, for surgeons working in the respiratory and aerodigestive tract,” said Dr. Sowerby, who is also a head and neck surgeon at London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London. “CIHR funding will allow us to rapidly execute this project. Without this funding, the project would not be possible.”

Dr. Sowerby says the results from this study, whether positive or negative, will have important implications. If positive, it will have a critical and direct impact on ensuring the safety of health care workers performing procedures on patients. Procedures using cautery will continue to require high level protection if the COVID-19 status of the patient is unknown. If negative, it will allow these surgical procedures to continue safely and effectively while conserving critical protective equipment for cases that need it.

The family physician’s role in pandemic plans

Maria Mathews, PhD, Associate Professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, is investigating how the role of family physicians can be better incorporated into pandemic plans. Family physicians play important roles during a pandemic, from detecting potential outbreaks and screening and testing patients to providing care to infected patients and contributing to surge capacity in hospitals. 

“During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, family physicians had concerns about roles they were asked to fill for a variety of reasons, including the lack of appropriate personal protective equipment, availability of tests, and concerns about infection risks to other patients and staff in a family practice clinic,” said Mathews.

Mathews will examine the experiences in four regions in Canada – Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia – to identify key roles, supports and best practices. The results will provide government ministries, public health units, and other health organizations with evidence and tools in order to incorporate family physicians in the response to a potential second COVID-19 wave and plan for future pandemics.

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