Governance and COI management

The COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) was launched in response to a global health emergency. The work of the Task Force is accordingly being conducted at a rapid pace and is built around partnerships with provinces, territories, communities, agencies, institutions, and research experts from coast to coast.

On one level, the Task Force is engaged in research that must be rigorous and that entails meeting both high ethical standards and modern expectations of engagement with stakeholders. At the same time, the Task Force has been mandated to expedite Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore rapid publication of results and wide sharing of data will be essential.

The CITF’s management of conflict of interest

The CITF has developed rigorous and transparent processes at all levels of operation, from the identification of priority research topics to the implementation of proposal evaluation and decision-making procedures for applications submitted for funding. The CITF is especially attentive to issues related to COI, particularly regarding the assessment of applications for funding, a process which is carefully managed by the EC.

COI is managed in the following distinct ways:

  • Executive Committee: All award investment decisions are made at the EC level. To hold a seat on the EC, it is therefore a requirement, to preserve neutrality, that EC members cannot have applied for or held CITF funds in the past and cannot intend to apply for or hold CITF funds in the future.
  • COI declarations: All non-ex officio members of the EC, LG, and WPs, as well as all executive members of the Secretariat must proactively complete a COI declaration form on an annual basis that is publicly available on the CITF website (see below). At each EC, LG and WP meeting, the designated Chair will ask members to provide updates to their forms.
  • External reviewers: At the level of proposal review, potential external reviewers of studies submitted to the CITF for funding are asked to declare any COI. The CITF has adopted COI definitions for the review process drawn from Federal Research Funding Organizations Alternative reviewers are selected when a COI is identified. Reviewers use a standard form that includes pre-determined evaluation criteria to guide the assessment of proposals and ensure transparency.
  • Committee meetings/recusals and abstentions: In all formal CITF committee meetings, the meeting Chair invites individual members to disclose COIs (direct or indirect) at the start of the session and again before each proposed study is discussed or evaluated. The COIs disclosed are recorded by the CITF Secretariat in formal minutes. Declarations are assessed and addressed by the meeting Chair. As meetings occur virtually, participants with direct conflicts are recused to an electronic waiting room or must abstain from participation until the project’s evaluation, discussion, and award recommendations have concluded. Participants with indirect COIs may be instructed to abstain from participation at the discretion of the Chair. In some cases, members may choose to formally abstain or recuse themselves. Direct COIs raised for each funding decision made by the EC are published below.

Confidentiality

Members of CITF advisory and decision-making bodies and the CITF Secretariat may have access to novel processes or ideas as well as confidential information about applicants and their proposals for contracts or grants. Members are accordingly expected to treat deliberations and decisions as confidential until announced publicly. In particular, there should be no advance notice given regarding funding competitions, early reports of funding decisions, or disclosure of strategic deliberations by the EC, CITF advisory bodies, and Secretariat.

Conflict of interest management in the Canadian COVID research reality

To ensure that the CITF’s work proceeds apace, the Task Force Executive Committee (EC), Leadership Group (LG), and Working Parties (WP or WPs) include not only representatives from federal sponsors and provincial partners, but a range of researchers from across Canada who have distinguished themselves in relevant fields of inquiry. The inevitable result is that many LG and WP members are themselves involved with key research teams that are potential candidates for financial support from the CITF. The Task Force co-chairs and federal sponsors are aware of this structural anomaly. They are fully committed to processes that manage the potential conflicts of interest (COI) it creates. At the same time, this unusual situation means that all those involved with the work of the Task Force must conduct themselves with careful attention to perceived and actual conflicts of interest.

Conflict of interest is defined as a tension between duties and responsibilities, and private, professional, business, or public interests. There may be a real, perceived, or potential conflict of interest when someone:

  • Receives professional or personal benefit resulting from the funding opportunity or application being reviewed;
  • Has a professional or personal relationship with an applicant or the applicant’s institution; or
  • Has a direct or indirect financial interest in a funding opportunity or application being reviewed.

List of all CITF decisions and actions to manage direct COIs – 2022

EC Meeting #25 – January 11, 2022

EC approved the extension and additional funds for:

Tracking Seroprevalence beyond January 2022 through Canadian Blood Services (PI: Chantale Pambrun)

The EC approved in principle:

Statistics Canada Canadian COVID-19 Antibody Health Survey 2 (PI: Ron Gravel)

EC approved funding for:

Lab analysis for the CIHR-funded study entitled Ab-C Risk: Action to Beat Coronavirus Sub-study on Population Immunity in High-Risk Groups in Canada (PI: Prabhat Jha)

No members declared a direct COI.
EC Meeting #26 – January 21, 2022
EC reviewed study amendments where no additional funds were requested. No members declared a direct COI.
EC meeting #27 – February 4, 2022

EC approved new funding for:

Immune Response in Young Immuno-Suppressed children to COVID-19 vaccination (IRYIS) (PI: Hélène Decaluwe)

EC approved the extension and additional funds for :

Action to Beat Coronavirus in Canada (Ab-C) – Phases 4 and 5 (PI: Prabhat Jha)

COVID-19 Occupational Risks, Seroprevalence and Immunity Among Paramedics in Canada (PI: Brian Grunau)

Integrating Longitudinal Epidemiologic, Virologic and Immunologic Analyses to Understand COVID-19 Immunity and Infection in Long-Term Care (PI: Marc Romney)

EC reviewed additional study amendments where no additional funds were requested

No members declared a direct COI.
EC Meeting #28 – March 4, 2022

EC approved the extension and additional funds for:

Investigating Vaccine Access, Immunogenicity, Effectiveness, and Safety among South Asians in Ontario and British Columbia (PI: Sonia Anand)

No members declared a direct COI.
EC Meeting #29 – April 1, 2022

EC approved additional funds for:

COVID-19 Vaccination in Pregnancy: A Province-Wide Epidemiological Assessment of Safety and Effectiveness Using the BORN Ontario Registry (PI: Deshayne Fell)

EC approved the extension and additional funds for:

Héma Québec Serosurvey (PI: Marc Germain)

No members declared a direct COI.

List of all CITF decisions and actions to manage direct COIs

2021 Decisions & Actions
2020 Decisions & Actions

Definitions

A direct COI occurs due to current or recent close collaborator status or close personal relationships between applicants and members reviewing study proposals. A declaration of financial interests is considered to be direct a COI, however this scenario is mitigated because EC members cannot apply to hold CITF funds or be co-investigators on CITF-sponsored studies. Indirect conflicts can occur through other professional and personal relationships between the member and the applicants or the entities they belong to.

Close collaborator refers to currently shared institutional affiliations (including provincial agencies, research hospitals and research institutes) or recently shared affiliations or a close professional affiliation with an applicant:

  • Had frequent and regular interactions with an applicant in the course of their duties at their department, institution, organization, or company;
  • Been a supervisor or a trainee of an applicant;
  • Collaborated, published, or shared funding, or have plans to do so in the immediate future.