Two studies look at SARS-CoV-2 transmission and immunity among students and staff on university campuses

While many university classes across Canada are being held online, some programs require in-person learning and access to on- and off-campus research and learning facilities. This increases the risk of exposure for students, faculty and staff to SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19. To address this, the Government of Canada is investing approximately $1 million through Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) to support two research studies looking at SARS-CoV-2 transmission and immunity on university campuses.

University of Waterloo study

The first study, led by Dr. Brian Dixon at the University of Waterloo, is currently recruiting 1,000 students, faculty and staff from local post-secondary institutions. Each participant is being asked to take a test for active infection and provide three blood samples over a nine-month period so that exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and immunity to it, can be tracked.

“Our first objective is to quantify the number of people with SARS-CoV-2 on local campuses, whether they have symptoms or not, by testing for active COVID-19 infections,” explains Dr. Brian Dixon, Professor and Canada Research Chair, Department of Biology, University of Waterloo. “We will also test their blood samples for two different immune responses, both antibody and memory T cell responses.”

“We aim to recruit a variety of participants who will help us understand how the virus affects people of different sexes, blood types, as well as age and ethnic groups who are exposed to similar levels of risk in approximately the same environment,” continues Dr. Dixon. “We hope to develop profiles to show us which people on a university campus are more prone to catching SARS-CoV-2 and which people are more likely to have symptoms.”

“College and university settings commonly consist of a varied and mobile population of young adults, local and international, who come and go from campus multiple times a year,” says Dr. Dixon. “We hope to better understand the risk of contracting the virus on a campus and inform measures to prevent it.”

Queen’s University study

The second study, led by Dr. Anne Ellis at Queen’s University, with Co-Investigators Drs. Stephen Vanner and Prameet Sheth, will recruit 500 students from the Faculty of Health Sciences who are not showing any symptoms. These are students who have direct and routine interactions with each other, the general public and ambulatory and in-patient populations at the Kingston Health Sciences Centre, putting them at greater risk of exposure to the virus. Researchers will test the students for active COVID-19 infection and will test their blood for the presence of antibodies, suggesting they had a previous infection. Both types of tests will be repeated on all participants three more times over eight months in order to capture any changes in infection rates and antibody levels.

“We have two primary objectives,” explains Dr. Anne Ellis, Professor, Departments of Medicine and Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Queen’s University. “First, we want to identify carriers of the virus with no symptoms to determine the prevalence of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection among these students. Second, we will evaluate antibody levels for any change from negative to positive or visa versa over the eight-month period to see whether it can be linked to immunity.”

“Our study will also evaluate the likelihood of the students becoming infected with the virus and developing antibodies,” continues Dr. Ellis, “Participants will complete a questionnaire to establish associations between their test results and other factors such as demographics, physical health measurements, lifestyle factors, medical history, travel history, COVID-19-related history, COVID-19 prevention practises, exposure and testing.”

Using follow-up questionnaires, researchers will determine students’ degree of anxiety and their coping mechanisms, to make correlations between mental health status and changes in their COVID-19 testing status. They will look at changes in mental health status associated with learning about COVID-19 test results for active infection and for immunity.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has radically shifted the post-secondary educational landscape and many institutions are grappling with decisions about students’ safety returning to campus and about how to protect their physical and mental wellbeing,” says Dr. Allison McGeer, CITF Leadership Group member and Professor at the University of Toronto. “Although in wave one, university students, faculty, and staff were not among the most affected populations, these younger age groups have seen a significant spike in cases in several areas of the country over the course of wave two. We need studies giving us more data, and these studies will do it.”

“The results from these research studies will directly inform the pandemic management policies and procedures implemented by universities and the public health regions where they are located across the country,” says Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. “To support campuses as safe places to live and learn, it is important to assess rates of COVID-19 and risk factors for infection in these close-knit institutions to protect university students, faculty and staff.”

ABOUT THE COVID-19 IMMUNITY TASK FORCE

In late April 2020, the Government of Canada established the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force with a two-year mandate. The Task Force is overseen by a Leadership Group of volunteers that includes leading Canadian scientists and experts from universities and healthcare facilities across Canada who are focused on understanding the nature of immunity arising from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. To that end, the CITF is supporting numerous studies to determine the extent of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Canada (in the general population as well as in specific communities and priority populations), understand the nature of immunity following infection, develop improved antibody testing methods, and help monitor the effectiveness and safety of vaccines as they are rolled out across Canada. The Task Force and its Secretariat accordingly work closely with a range of partners, including governments, public health agencies, institutions, health organizations, research teams, other task forces, communities, and stakeholders. Most recently, the Task Force has been asked to take a major role in supporting vaccine surveillance for effectiveness and safety. Our overriding objective is to generate data and ideas that inform interventions aimed at slowing and ultimately stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Canada. For more information visit: www.covid19immunitytaskforce.ca

MEDIA CONTACTS

COVID-19 Immunity Task Force
media@covid19immunitytaskforce.ca

Rebecca Burns, Cell: +1.438.871.8763
Caroline Phaneuf, Cell: +1.514.444.4532

Interviews with Dr. Brian Dixon

Rebecca Elming, University of Waterloo

+1.647.459.8313 | relming@uwaterloo.ca

Interviews with Dr. Anne Ellis

Julie Brown, Queen’s University

+1.343.363.2763 | Julie.brown@queensu.ca