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CIHR names Dalhousie scholar Applied Public Health Chair

Posted by Kate Rogers on January 19, 2022 in News
Matthew Herder
Matthew Herder

Dalhousie is now home to another research chair. Matthew Herder, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, jointly appointed in the Schulich School of Law, and director of the Health Law Institute, is one of seven newly appointed Applied Public Health Chairs announced today by the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). The program will provide $8.05 million in support to be shared among the chairs to build capacity and strengthen a range of research disciplines and sectors.

Developed in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), CIHR’s Institute of Population and Public Health first developed the Applied Public Health Chair program in 2003 in response to the challenges that emerged following the SARS epidemic. Revived in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program provides mid-career researchers with an opportunity to collaborate with decision makers to help support innovative public health-oriented research. The goal is improved health outcomes for both those in Canada and around the world.

The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Health, recently spoke about the program’s importance to healthcare in the country. “The Government of Canada is proud to support the outstanding work of health researchers in all regions of the country who are producing knowledge that will improve the health of Canadians and strengthen our healthcare system.”

For Prof. Herder, this is an opportunity to engage directly with public health institutions, government officials, and researchers who've played key roles in Canada’s response to the pandemic.

Policy and practice redesign

Prof. Herder aims to interrogate how various laws, policies, and practices have limited access to COVID-19 vaccines and other important interventions in many parts of the world. Entitled Improving infectious disease innovation governance, his project will investigate how the current approach to innovation creates sources of inequity depending on the part of the world you live in.

“If you’re fortunate to live in a wealthy nation, your access to vaccines and other materials to help address the pandemic grossly exceeds those in low- and middle-income countries,” says Prof. Herder.

He will be working closely with the Canadian Center for Vaccinology here at Dalhousie, along with researchers at various institutions who are involved in developing medicines and vaccines for infectious diseases. He hopes to get them thinking critically about their processes and the resulting inequities in access to the knowledge and products they produce.

The project and Prof. Herder’s Chair will span six years and include a significant capacity building component. He is preparing to run a series of summer institutes where he will engage with scientists and researchers from low-and-middle-income countries to share knowledge and learn more about the different approaches being used in some of those settings to develop vaccines and other critically important public health interventions. Pending travel restrictions, he also intends to learn about alternative approaches to innovation in Cuba, Brazil, and South Africa.

“A lot of those places have a different way of doing things that maybe hasn't led to vaccines being available faster, but in some cases, has led to some of those interventions being more affordable and broadly available,” he says. “I think we have a lot to learn.”

Return on investment

Prof. Herder is no stranger to research into vaccine development and policy. In 2020 he published a deep dive into how an Ebola vaccine was developed at a government lab in Winnipeg (Read more on this publication). He investigated how it became not only the intervention of choice to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2015, but also became one of the most expensive vaccines in use in low-and-middle-income countries after control was given from the lab to industry. Then, and now, he questions whether the public is getting an adequate return on its investment in many important drug and vaccine innovations.

“With COVID, governments in rich nations have both funded and completed much of the scientific research behind vaccines and other interventions, yet have very little say over the price of those things and whether they can be made available within the other parts of the world that also need them.”

Improving accessibility

As the only legal scholar among the seven appointed Applied Public Health Chairs, Prof. Herder has a unique perspective to bring to the table, with law and policy fundamentally impacting health outcomes. According to him, the legal systems favour some interests over others and the time to change that has never been more appropriate.

“The way in which innovation works right now is about generating wealth. Whether the results of that research process are accessible is, sadly, often an afterthought,” he says. “We need a different system that isn’t tied to market rewards in order to make sure that we’re better prepared and also so that when we do get useful products, they’re accessible as a matter of need, not as a matter of ability to pay.”

Dedicating receipt of the award to his late father-in-law, Dr. David Mymin, Prof. Herder hopes to help reshape infectious disease innovation in the service of public good.