Researchers at U of T to study presence of COVID-19 antibodies in high-​risk populations

a lab technician handles a vial of blood for a Covid-19 antibody test
The Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health, hosted by the U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has received a $1.9 million to identify individuals who have COVID-19 antibodies (photo by Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (CanPath), hosted by the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has received a $1.9 million investment from Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force to fund a study of COVID-19 seroprevalence across Canada.

The study aims to identify individuals who have antibodies for COVID-19 infection but may not have been tested or experienced symptoms. It focuses on specific communities and individuals that are at higher risk of infection.

The information will be used to identify factors that make some more susceptible to the virus than others.

“CanPath’s large number of participants, pan-Canadian reach, and population coverage enable us to detect differences in exposure and immunity among Canadians,” says Philip Awadalla, CanPath’s national scientific director and a professor in the department of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “We can capture how age, sex, socio-demographic factors, geography, genetics and health history impact varying immune responses to COVID-19 in Canada.

“With data captured by the CanPath COVID-19 survey we rapidly implemented earlier this year, we are able to identify participants who may have been exposed as well as infected. We can also identify how pre-existing conditions, captured through health Information routinely collected over the past decade, impact COVID-19 disease severity.”

The pan-Canadian study will test 20,000 participants for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, an indication of past infection with the novel coronavirus. It will focus on adults ages 30 and older in populations that are traditionally under-represented in research studies or are among the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19, including residents of long-term care homes and people living in under-served communities with higher numbers of COVID-19 cases in both urban and rural settings.

CanPath is a national population health research platform that follows the health of 330,000 Canadians, or one per cent of the population. It is led by Awadalla and John McLaughlin, executive director of CanPath and a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“CanPath is an excellent example of a pan-Canadian collaborative effort that has engaged partners from many organizations and provinces for well over a decade. As a result, these critical questions on immunity in the Canadian population can be addressed in an efficient and coordinated manner,” says Vivek Goel a member of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation.

Goel is also a special adviser to U of T’s president and provost who is helping to guide the university’s pandemic response.

“Over the years, CanPath has contributed data and developed partnerships with numerous researchers and organizations across Canada,” says McLaughlin. “These partnerships enable our provincial and regional teams to work with communities that are at greatest risk. CanPath will work in support of Indigenous leaders and scholars to study the seroprevalence of COVID-19 antibodies among Indigenous communities. We are honoured to be selected to support the national COVID-19 control efforts by being able to rapidly provide actionable insights to federal and provincial decision-makers.”

The COVID-19 serology study builds upon a previous grant of more than $2.5 million awarded to CanPath by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. It will be implemented in collaboration with CanPath’s regional cohorts: the BC Generations Project, Alberta’s Tomorrow Project, the Manitoba Tomorrow Project, Ontario Health Study, CARTaGENE (Quebec) and the Atlantic Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health.

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