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The Manulife-CIFAR Partnership: Research to Support Canada’s Pandemic Recovery

November 17, 2022


Seniors separated from their loved ones. Caregivers running on empty. People suffering with long-COVID brain fog. Children impacted by social isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented population and public health challenges society hasn’t faced before – that have wide-reaching consequences far beyond physical health. To better understand these impacts and identify opportunities to address them, Manulife and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) partnered to promote innovation and research collaboration.

The Manulife CIFAR Population Health and Well-Being Grant Program on COVID-19 was the continuation of a 35-year partnership that has seen Manulife provide nearly $3 million in support for pioneering research in health and social sciences to empower sustained and equitable health and well-being. The joint program funded important breakthroughs that will further the understanding of the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic – and will be essential to recovery efforts.

Between 2020 and 2021, the program funded six important COVID-related research projects that addressed pressing questions in this space.


1. How can robots serve vulnerable communities?

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit vulnerable populations, like the elderly, particularly hard. Those living in long-term care facilities face the negative effects of social isolation, and their overworked caregivers are often too busy to meet anything more than their physical needs.

The CIFAR research team investigated using robots as a way to reduce those problems. They used them for communication, to engage older adults with games and music, and for task assistance to promote independence. A robot also screened staff coming in to work to reduce workload for busy employees. Despite challenges around adopting new technology in emergency situations and minimal training time, results were overwhelmingly positive.


2. What does COVID-19 do to the brain?

This project studied 485 COVID-positive volunteers to understand the cognitive and mental health impacts of the disease – with significant results. Compared to control subjects, those who had been infected did significantly worse on decision-making, reasoning, verbal performance and processing speed. And the worse the physical symptoms, the worse the cognitive defects.

Mental health was also impacted but didn’t correlate with symptom severity in the same way. The research pinpoints age as an important factor in long-term effects: older people tended to have more physical and cognitive symptoms, while younger ones were more likely to experience anxiety and depression.


3. How does our response to COVID-19 affect infant microbiomes?

In normal times, babies encounter a variety of people – and a wide range of germs and healthy bacteria. It’s how their microbiome develops, establishing immunity and many other aspects of health. So what happens in a time of social distancing and increased hygiene practices?

Researchers examined the impact of decreased exposure on infant microbial development and found two things: one, that reduced social contact and increased hygiene results in lower skin microbial diversity, and two, increased physical contact with people and animals leads to more beneficial microbe transmission. These results will help us understand how experience impacts physical development – and will influence how we approach long-term health.


4. How do our social networks help us survive the pandemic?

Being separated from friends, families and colleagues during lockdowns has been difficult for many. By studying the social structures of flies and mice, CIFAR researchers gained insight into how social structures are formed, how social networks help build resilience during isolation, and how they impact early life, stress and the ability to function socially. The results will help us better understand the new social reality of the post-COVID world.


5. How are nonprofits innovating and (re)defining the boundaries of community?

This project looked at how non-profit organizations (NPOs) responded to the pandemic. Researchers investigated 920 NPOs in California, and found they were all quick to provide vital health info early in the pandemic, with many going beyond their usual mandates to care for their communities and keep vulnerable groups safe. But after the initial push, non-health-related organizations were slow to share information on vaccines, and many were completely silent which could have been a missed opportunity.


6. How has the pandemic impacted children's health?

Economic stressors and unintended consequences of social distancing have had their impacts, but they’ve put children at particular risk.

To study these hidden costs of COVID-19, CIFAR researchers created innovative home testing kits that allowed them to monitor specific biomarkers in children’s health. These new tools will help researchers understand how experience becomes biology — and how experiences like the pandemic shape children's health and development.


These six projects have created transformative knowledge. Together, Manulife and CIFAR will continue to help empower the sustained health and well-being of families and communities in Canada and around the world. 

“Manulife has been playing an active role throughout the COVID-19 pandemic on several critical fronts supporting our customers, partners and communities,” says Karen Leggett, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Manulife. “These projects will positively impact the global fight against this pandemic, and this type of research will be essential to recovery efforts. That’s why we’re also proud to build on our partnership with CIFAR in their world-leading research funding a series of additional projects in 2022.”

Building on these fascinating developments, the program will fund a new series of leading-edge research projects in 2022 that continue to align with the three interconnected areas of focus supporting Manulife’s Impact Agenda: empowering sustained health and well-being, driving inclusive economic opportunity and accelerating a sustainable future.


To learn more about Manulife’s progress against its Impact Agenda objectives and focus on sustainability, visit