Residents of long-term care facilities are at increased risk for serious outcomes of COVID-19. As vaccines are now being offered to this priority population, the Government of Canada is investing over $2 million through Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) for two studies in British Columbia (BC) and Alberta which will investigate how the immune systems of elderly residents and staff in these facilities respond to COVID-19 infection and vaccination.
“These long-term care studies are critically important for a number of reasons,” says Mel Krajden, MD, FRCPC, CITF Leadership Group member. He is also the Medical Director of BC Centre for Disease Control Public Health Laboratory, and Professor, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of British Columbia. “Residents who are exposed can now help us understand more about how immunity develops, and why elderly individuals have been so vulnerable to the virus,” he continues. “With vaccine rollout underway, we need to collect evidence now about how the immune systems of elderly people react to vaccines so that we can make the best use of vaccination to protect them.”
The objective of the first study, led by researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Providence Health Care, Simon Fraser University, and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, is to investigate how elderly peoples’ immune systems respond to COVID-19 vaccines. The researchers will also assess the viral, immunological and social factors that have contributed to COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care facilities, to better understand why the disease has been fatal to so many residents.
“We will be collecting blood samples from residents and staff of long-term care facilities in BC before vaccination, when possible, and then taking more blood samples periodically after vaccination,” explains study Principal Investigator Marc Romney, MD, Clinical Associate Professor at UBC and Medical Leader for Medical Microbiology and Virology at St. Paul’s Hospital, Providence Health Care. “For those who have already been vaccinated, we will be assessing vaccine-induced immunity over time, using innovative and emerging laboratory tests. What we learn in this study will inform stakeholders on how best to protect individuals who live and work in long-term care facilities from COVID-19, prevent future outbreaks, and hopefully save lives.”
The second study, led by researchers at the University of Alberta and Alberta Health Services (AHS), is examining how the immune systems of residents and staff in long-term care facilities in Alberta react to COVID-19 infection and to vaccines. The team is also monitoring sewage wastewater as to develop an early warning system to detect and monitor outbreaks in long-term care facilities.
“Our team will study the immune response to COVID-19 vaccines among residents and staff in long-term care facilities using blood samples, comparing the response of people who have previously been infected with COVID-19 to those who weren’t,” explains study Principal Investigator Xiaoli Pang, MD, PhD, Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Alberta and Program Leader at Public Health laboratory, Alberta Precision Laboratories. “The study will provide important information about the impact of vaccines in this population at higher risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19.”
The Alberta study team will also monitor wastewater samples from selected long-term care facilities in Edmonton, to detect signs of SARS-CoV-2 infections in residents and staff. “The virus has been found in human wastewater before people show signs of illness, and even among those who become infected but do not develop symptoms,” says Dr. Pang. “Detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater provides an early sign that the virus is circulating, typically before we see a clinical diagnosis of COVID-19. We’re confident this project will provide a helpful early-warning system for long-term care facilities.” The goal will be to use this early warning system for timely response, including rapid testing of residents and staff to identify those infected, to stop outbreaks, and prevent further spread of the disease.
“These studies will contribute to our understanding of COVID-19 vaccine-induced immunity in seniors living in long-term care facilities, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” states Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. “Vaccines are critical to limiting the spread of COVID-19, and this research will support their most effective use.”
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. Working virtually, the Task Force Leadership Group is a representative set of volunteer experts from across the country 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, and develop improved antibody testing methods. Most recently, the Task Force has been asked to take a major role in supporting vaccine surveillance for effectiveness and safety. 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. 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
COVID-19 Immunity Task Force
Rebecca Burns, Cell: +1.438.871.8763
Caroline Phaneuf, Cell: +1.514.444.4532
For interviews with Alberta team:
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For interviews with BC team:
Media Relations, The University of British Columbia
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A video and B-roll of the wastewater sample collecting operation in Edmonton are available upon request.