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All non-COVID19 research and clinical trials at hospitals suspended or cancelled due to funding crunch

All non-COVID19 research and clinical trials at hospitals suspended or cancelled due to funding crunch
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OTTAWA—Leaders at Canada’s biggest hospitals have written an urgent plea to the prime minister to extend the federal wage subsidy or risk “catastrophic” layoffs at hospital-based research institutes across the country.

Hospital-based research institutes across the country depend on outside charitable organizations, foundations, and biotech or pharmaceutical companies to fund their lab operations and work, and those sources have dried up, the research directors and hospital heads wrote.

“If trends hold, the pandemic will cannibalize Canada’s overall research capacity, generating mass layoffs of critical research staff.”

It is a stunning warning coming from research leaders and directors who say is no help.

The wage subsidy is part of a $2-billion aid package designed to help employers hang on to workers who might otherwise be laid off.

HealthCareCAN, the association representing more than 55 hospitals and healthcare organizations, says it has been told that Ottawa’s eligibility criteria exclude employees in publicly funded sectors. Morneau’s office confirmed this on Friday.

The federal government admits there are gaps in the program, and it continues to scramble to address the needs of workers who don’t qualify.

The directors of research in major hospitals in Toronto, Hamilton, London, Ottawa and beyond, wrote to Trudeau and members of his key cabinet committee in charge of the COVID-19 response.

They said the staff positions of thousands of hospital-based researchers are typically funded by outside partners — these include charitable organizations, foundations, and biotech or pharmaceutical companies — “whose own circumstances in light of COVID-19 prevent them from funding research or staff.”

For example, the University Health Network in Toronto is losing a projected $6 million per month, money that helps employ 650 people, including clinical research associates and coordinators, research nurses, laboratory technicians, biostatisticians, data managers, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows.

HealthCareCan did a rapid survey of 24 Canadian health research institutes and said they expect to lose almost $500 million over the next six months, a figure it says is likely an underestimate.

The same circumstances are playing out in academic health sciences centres across the country.

“This decision will have catastrophic implications for Canada’s capacity to respond to COVID-19, and for Canada’s health research sector more generally,” says the letter, signed by 26 research leaders at dozens of hospital centres.

They warned that Canada’s hospital-based research sector “may become a casualty of this pandemic in the absence of government support.”

“Clinical studies involving real researchers and real patients have already been shelved and Canadian researchers have already lost their jobs. This process is happening now,” the letter says.

It says the research community has “no end of gratitude for the measures already taken by this government, notably its $275M investment in research to support the COVID-19 response.”

“Yet, as things stand, very few institutes can make employment decisions on the basis of those dollars. The process of assigning those moneys, while the health workforce fires, rehires, and/or reallocates its talent, will impose a harsh administrative burden when the sector can least afford it.”

Those most at risk of layoffs are clinical research associates and coordinators, research nurses, laboratory technicians, biostatisticians, data managers, graduate students, and thousands of postdoctoral fellows.

“Their knowledge and talent will be wasted in this crisis if the health sector cannot employ them, an outcome that would also pose a dire threat to morale across the health sector, which is already at a nadir in Canada,” the letter says.

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The letter is signed by Dr. Duncan Stewart, head of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute; Dr. Brad Wouters, vice-president of research at the University Health Network; Dr. Robert McMaster of the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute; Dr. Kullervo Hynynen at Sunnybrook Research Institute; Dr. Paula Rochon at Women’s College Research Institute; HealthCareCAN president Paul-Emile Cloutier, and many others.

Late Friday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office told the Star that researchers may be eligible, depending on their place of employment, and might get support from other levels of government, but said private companies, charities and not-for profit organizations may be eligible for the wage subsidy.

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Morneau spokesperson Maeva Proteau said researchers, whether employed or self-employed, who are unable to work due to COVID-19 may also be eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) which provides workers who are directly affected by COVID-19 with a payment of $2,000 for a four-week period for up to 16 weeks.

The Liberal government has provided money for research into COVID-19 testing, treatments and vaccine, but Morneau’s office acknowledged many researchers not working on COVID-19 “have had their research disrupted by the pandemic.

“To support these individuals, some researchers have received one additional year of funding, while other researchers have been granted one extra year to use their existing research funds.

“The government will continue to carefully monitor all developments relating to the COVID-19 outbreak and will continue to take further action to protect Canadians and the economy as necessary,” said Proteau.
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