The threat of coronavirus

MI4 is pursuing multiple research initiatives to improve our understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) causes disease and developing new approaches for the surveillance, diagnosis and management of COVID-19 disease.

Just days into 2020, researchers in Wuhan, China announced that a spike in pneumonia cases was, in fact, a new strain of coronavirus. Within weeks, cases of this new disease were being reported worldwide. Mere months later, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak, called COVID-19, a pandemic. Over 191,000 people worldwide have been infected, and it is estimated that more than one third of the world’s population will be affected.

Today, cities are on lockdown. Countries are closing their borders. In Canada, government officials are cancelling public gatherings and closing schools. At the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity is leading the response.


In 2017, the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4) brought together over 250 researchers to address the threat of infection: issues like antibiotic resistance, tuberculosis in Canada’s North, and the next global pandemic. We hoped it would not come this soon, but MI4 is taking the lead to address the COVID-19 pandemic and to mitigate risks for Canadians and the world and save lives. As cases in Canada increase, MI4 is:

  • Providing clinical care and advocacy for COVID-19 patients and offering community education
  • Pursuing multiple research initiatives to improve our understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) causes disease and developing new approaches for the surveillance, diagnosis and management of COVID-19 disease
  • Advising Quebec’s and Canada’s Health Ministries on policies, procedures and decision making related to COVID-19

MI4 was created for global health challenges like this one, and already our researchers are pursuing multiple ambitious research projects to reduce the threat of coronavirus, stop its spread and treat those who are hardest hit.

MI4 coronavirus response

Finding an effective COVID-19 therapy

There is no treatment for COVID-19. Yet. MI4 investigators are participating in trials of potential antiviral therapies for coronavirus, and through a collaboration with Laval University, are working to develop a vaccine that can combat this infection. Several vaccine formulas have been created, but now they must go through rigorous testing to prove their efficacy.

Understanding transmission 

We don’t yet understand how the SARS-COV-2 virus is transmitted. MI4 is working to change that. We will perform frequent screening to clearly define how long a patient is contagious and how effectively the virus is transmitted through body fluids (urine, tears, etc.) Using sequencing techniques, we will study coronavirus samples to understand its spread between patients over time. This will allow us to better understand the dynamics of transmission by linking individual virus characteristics across patients, and help us identify the emergence of new, potentially more virulent strains of SARS-CoV-2.

Improving management of COVID-19

The best way to control a disease is to understand it completely. Researchers at MI4 are working to understand how the virus interacts with the immune system to predict which patients will have a mild course of illness and which are at risk for developing severe disease. Given the limited surge capacity of our health care system, this knowledge will be critical for allocating health care resources to those who need them the most.

Tracking and controlling the virus

Today, air travel means diseases like COVID-19 can travel around the world in less than a day. Dr. Michael Libman, MI4 investigator and head of the McGill Centre for Tropical Diseases recently received $1 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to optimize the screening process for COVID-19. With the support of the McGill-led GeoSentinel network, which monitors travel-related illnesses in thousands of travelers, Dr. Libman and his team will screen returning travelers and track the spread of COVID-19 in the many countries around the world that lack the medical infrastructure to diagnose coronavirus infections.

Using AI to understand coronavirus’ spread

In the age of the internet, sources of coronavirus news are limitless. And not all of them are useful. Our artificial intelligence researchers are collaborating with the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop machine-learning algorithms that comb through digital media worldwide to monitor public health control measures and societal reactions to coronavirus.  By comparing the evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic in the online news media to the evolution of the epidemic as reported through official sources, investigators hope to identify sources of bias, misinformation and miscommunication to improve outreach, education, and implementation of public health control measures.

You can help us fight coronavirus

As the threat of COVID-19 increases in Canada and around the world, MI4 is ready to take the lead to stop this pandemic and save lives. With 250 experts right here in Montreal, we have the potential to become a world leader in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Please consider making a gift in support of the critical work of MI4. Your donation will help us in the fight to stop COVID-19.

For more information, to make a donation or to get involved, please contact Miguel Burnier, Director of Development, at 514-934-1934, ext. 71205, [email protected]