April 28th, four days after Prime Minister Trudeau announced the establishment of a COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, the Task Force Leadership Group convened and began responding to key gaps in information about the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease.
Members agreed on an accelerated process that, by mid-May, will enable the scale-up of existing fieldwork on immunity. The Group also began setting an agenda for new immunity analyses to meet the needs of Canadian decision-makers and the general public.
Co-Chaired by Dr. Catherine Hankins and Dr. David Naylor, the Task Force includes leading experts in public health, infectious disease, immunology, epidemiology, laboratory medicine, and healthcare policy from across the country (view Leadership Group Membership). The Task Force also includes representatives from the Governments of Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. Members were welcomed to their inaugural meeting by the Deputy Minister of Health – Dr. Stephen Lucas; the Chief Public Health Officer – Dr. Theresa Tam; and the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister – Dr. Mona Nemer. Drs Lucas, Tam, and Nemer are all ex-officio members of the Task Force.
For effective responses to the ongoing epidemic, including any vaccination programs, it is crucial to determine what fraction of the population already has some immunity to the virus. Thus far, an unknown number of Canadians have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 but have not been tested for the virus because they had either mild non-specific symptoms or no symptoms whatsoever. Blood tests for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies are the key tool to determining how many Canadians have already been infected.
In response to this challenge, the Task Force will be supporting rapid implementation of population surveys, both general and focused on specific communities, geographies, and occupational groups, such as front-line healthcare workers. For maximum speed and efficiency, these surveys will work through established networks and institutions, such biobanks and blood banks, public health agencies, hospitals, other studies already in the field, and strong research teams.
While the presence of antibodies is informative, many questions remain unanswered about how immunity to the novel coronavirus develops, how strong it is, and how long it lasts. Finding answers to these questions is vital both for broad policymaking, and for individuals wanting to understand their own level of immunity.
In response, the Task Force agreed to plan and support a program of rapid-cycle research to address these questions. It will do so both by following groups of individuals with and without past SARS-CoV-2 infection over time, and by working in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to enlist the best and brightest scientists to do pertinent laboratory work.
Task Force members also agreed on the need to get top quality immunity tests identified and procured in the near future. This work is already underway and is immediately relevant to the mandate of the Task Force. High quality, standardized testing will be widely useful as and when immunity testing is scaled up across Canada. In the days ahead, working parties of Task Force members and external experts will be rapidly sorting through more details of implementation. The Task Force will meet again in a week.