Ottawa's CANImmunize eyes major part in COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Kumanan Wilson
Dr. Kumanan Wilson is the founder and CEO of CANImmunize. File photo

A new Ottawa startup is primed to play a key role in what’s expected to be one of the most daunting logistical challenges ever to face Canada’s health-care system ​– the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine.

While many Canadians probably breathed a sigh of relief at recent news that potential coronavirus vaccines have shown promising results, coming up with a viable shot is only half the battle. As every health official knows, a vaccine is worthless if people don’t get immunized. 

To that end, a local firm called CANImmunize is aiming to make it easier for health units across the country to track how many Canadians get the COVID-19 jab and ensure they receive the required dosage of the vaccine.

CANImmunize was originally launched out of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in 2011 and was spun off into its own company last year. With several million dollars worth of funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada and other government sources, founder Dr. Kumanan Wilson and his team of researchers have developed a digital tool to help monitor the usage and safety of vaccines.

The 10-person startup’s app allows users to input their immunization history and share it with health authorities in provinces and territories across Canada. The platform also issues reminders when booster shots or additional doses of a vaccine are required – as many experts predict could be the case with the COVID-19 shot. 

Flu vaccine pilot project

“We expect this rollout to be one of the most complicated and most important health interventions in our lifetime,” says Wilson, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital.

To help prepare for the massive immunization effort, CANImmunize recently launched a pilot project to test the app in flu vaccine campaigns at the Ottawa Hospital and the B.C. Children’s Hospital. 

Participants will be asked to report any adverse reactions to the flu shot using the app or a traditional online survey. CANImmunize is partnering with the Canadian Immunization Research Network’s Canadian National Vaccine Safety Network on the study, which is funded by the Ottawa Hospital Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund and the Ottawa Hospital Academic Medical Association.

Wilson says the project will help iron out any kinks in the CANImmunize platform before the COVID-19 vaccination drive begins. 

Reminders 'critical'

Vaccines have become a hot-button issue in recent years. The World Health Organization listed “vaccine hesitancy” as a top-10 global threat in 2019 alongside widespread risks such as ebola and climate change. It cited a lack of trust in vaccines’ effectiveness and complacency as contributing factors in the resurgence of previously preventable diseases such as measles.

Although the coronavirus is at the top of everyone’s mind right now, Wilson hopes CANImmunize will help raise awareness about the overall importance of getting vaccinated, especially among adults who might forget to schedule booster shots for diseases such as tetanus. He says studies have shown that digital reminders can raise immunization rates by as much as 20 per cent.

“COVID is going to make this very apparent that adult vaccinations are really critical,” Wilson says. “That’s where the gap is.”

While the app will be free for all Canadians, Wilson sees plenty of revenue-generating potential for CANImmunize. 

The company plans to eventually market the platform on a subscription basis to private health-care facilities, long-term care homes and other customers.

“There are a zillion opportunities,” Wilson says. “We have to figure out which ones are the best ones to pursue given our limited resources and where the value is.”