Meet the People Who Were Ready for This

By Gillian Rutherford

By Gillian Rutherford

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Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, founder and director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, and the institute’s scientists have quickly pivoted to focus on COVID-19.

How can you be ready for something like this?

It has been less than three months since the world started hearing about a deadly new virus spreading in China. Now thousands of people around the world are sick and countries are taking emergency measures not seen since wartime.

Suddenly “ready” takes on a whole new meaning, as we gather family closer and seal ourselves off from the rest of the world for the sake of our own and the community’s health.

I got a glimpse of a different kind of readiness when I spoke with U of A virologist Dr. Lorne Tyrrell for a story about critical research underway at the university.

You see, he’s been preparing for this pandemic his whole career.

A leading researcher in viral hepatitis, Dr. Tyrrell is a former dean of medicine, an officer of the Order of Canada and a Killam Prize winner.

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He knows having a flexible source of funds is critical for rapid response. When he was dean, they had a team working on islet cell transplants. The team lost its grants, but funds from unrestricted donations kept the research going until they published the Edmonton Protocol in the New England Journal of Medicine, a huge step forward in treating Type 1 diabetes.

A decade ago, with the support of a gift from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, Dr. Tyrrell brought together some of the top experts in the world to build on the work of the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. The result was the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology. The institute’s purpose is to seek out cures for some of the most fearsome threats to human health and respond to emerging scourges like Ebola, Zika, SARS and MERS.

Dr. Tyrrell and the scientists in the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology have pivoted to focus on COVID-19 and they’ve done it quickly.

“We support research into emerging diseases, which is why we set up in the beginning: so that we would have funding to sponsor rapid responses.”
– Dr. Lorne Tyrrell

At a brainstorming session, they came up with research proposals to find tests, treatments and vaccines. They were ready when the federal government made funds available. All of this was possible because a donor foresaw the benefit of uniting experts from diverse fields in one place. (You can read more about how the institute came together in this story from 2012.)

U of A researchers were ready for COVID-19. Ready to build on previous research and knowledge to fight the disease and the spread of misinformation, to share expertise and to learn from this pandemic so we are better prepared for the next one.

It makes me proud and it fills me with hope to know that, thanks to supporters, U of A researchers are already at work searching for answers.

Gillian Rutherford

Gillian covers the health and wellness beat for folio, the University of Alberta’s brand journalism site. Before joining the U of A last year, she worked at CBC Radio, City of Edmonton and United Way of the Alberta Capital Region.

You can find the latest advice and direction from Alberta’s chief medical officer of health here. (By the way, a true public health hero, Dr. Deena Hinshaw studied at U of A and is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Medicine.)here. (By the way, a true public health hero, Dr. Deena Hinshaw studied at U of A and is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Medicine.)

For the latest information on how the U of A is keeping people safe while continuing with teaching and learning, go to