Government invests $1.9 million in COVID-19 immunity study of high-risk populations

TORONTO — The federal government is investing $1.9 million for a national study of COVID-19 antibodies that is targeted specifically at some of the more high-risk populations in the country.

The investment, announced Wednesday, is being made through Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) to the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (CanPath), so it can conduct a serological study of 20,000 Canadians in long-term care homes and people living in under-served areas of the country with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.

“We’re already seeing in some of these communities, outbreaks tend to be more severe, and so I think they deserve perhaps potentially more attention, in part because they are understudied traditionally,” Dr. Philip Awadalla, the project lead and national scientific director of CanPath, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

In a news release, Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, called protecting Canadians at higher risk of infection a “top priority” for the government’s management of the virus.

“This study will improve our understanding of the spread of COVID-19 among populations at higher risk of infection and will allow us to plan and target our public health approaches more effectively,” she said.

CanPath is a national health research platform that contains the detailed health data of more than 330,000 Canadian volunteers, representing one per cent of Canadians. This database is used for a variety of national health studies involving several topics.

Awadalla said this extensive data makes CanPath uniquely capable of determining population trends among Canadians and COVID-19.

“The fact that we have lots of detailed health information already about our participants is going to make it much more clear why certain people have that immunity,” he said.

Serological tests involve testing the patient’s blood for antibodies of a virus. For purposes of this study, the participants will be sent a kit to take a dry sample of their blood and send it back for analysis.

Serological testing is useful in determining who may have contracted a virus previously and who may now be immune to said virus. They also work to determine the overall scope of infection in a given area.

For example, blood testing results from this month have shown that one per cent of Ontarians have contracted COVID-19, while antibodies have been found in two per cent of Quebecers.

Awadalla said he hopes this study helps to explain which groups of people are developing the antibodies and which aren’t, and how long the antibodies last in different groups of people.

“We know that people who are working in long-term care homes or frontline workers are both becoming exposed, developing the disease and it seems that — quite likely — that they are also maintaining immunity potentially in a different way than people in the regular population,” he said.

The additional funding builds on a previous $2.6-million contribution from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the CITF, which was used to conduct COVID-19 surveys on the full CanPath cohort and to conduct an immune system analysis of 4,000 participants.

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