Researchers from the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health in Toronto are collaborating with the University of Toronto and the Angus Reid Institute to lead the “Action to Beat Coronavirus” study to better understand the staying power of COVID-19 antibody immunity. The team is testing over 10,000 Canadians for antibodies in a bid to identify metrics around immunity duration and just what proportion of the Canadian population has been exposed to the novel coronavirus. An intriguing and important follow on question: how many people are asymptomatic? Led by Dr. Prabhat Jha, no such endeavor has been accomplished as of yet in Canada.
Current Testing is Limited
The Canadian study has been designed to deal with current limitations with COVID-19 data. As most people seek out testing due to the manifestation of relevant symptoms, the overall testing lacks a true and full depiction of how SARS-CoV-2 has disseminated throughout Canada.
What can best be described as a survey and associated test starts with an online questionnaire sent to over 10,000 Canadians via the nationally-representative database called Angus Reid Forum. Those who respond with a completed form include their experience with COVID-19. After that, the study team randomly selects a group of participants that have consented to receive a blood test. Subsequently, the study team sends the blood test kit, inclusive of a lancet (for drawing blood), gauze, alcohol wipe, bandage, fact sheet, and instructional manual, as well as the consent form, reports CTV News.
The study team plans to test approximately 6,000 adults aged 20 to 60 and 4,000 adults aged over 60.
By placing one droplet of blood within a specialized filter paper in the testing kit, the blood dries out before it is mailed back to the hospital for antibody analysis. Dr. Jha reports, “It’s a simple process that has been used in developing countries for quite a while, because doing blood-based studies is really difficult.” Jha reported that this approach made sense given the total number of participants and the fact that it would be impractical to have thousands come and visit the hospital during such a period.
The blood samples will arrive at the laboratory of St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto for analysis. By employing at least two separate antibody tests in combination, the researchers seek to mitigate the risks inherent in faulty findings that can skew results.
Participants can access the results; however, Jha notes that “these aren’t immunity passports.” His point: an individual can have plenty of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, but that doesn’t mean that they are immune to anything.
Follow on Test
Then in another four to six months, the participants will be sent a second set of questions, and they must follow through the process and submit another home-based blood test. During this second round, the investigators hope to secure more interesting information: Dr. Jha emphasized, “Then we can see the people who were infected, did they keep the antibodies—which is a sign of protection—or did they lose them.” Jha will be keen to understand whether some people would be infected this second go around. Those that are now infected after this second batch indicates a SARS-CoV-2 transmission rate.
Seeking Knowledge about a Novel Coronavirus
Ultimately, the Toronto-based team seeks to understand a lot more about SARS-CoV-2; how strong are the antibodies once a person has been exposed? How long do the antibodies manifestation—immunities—last? Not a trivial matter as economies open back up governments and health authorities need a much more comprehensive understanding of the nature of immunity associated with COVID-19. What percentage of the population is asymptomatic, for example, is an important question.
The study could help the researchers identify with more granular detail about the virus in Canada. For example, what percentage of the total population has contracted the virus and compare to current hospitalization and death rates imparting a far greater understanding of this novel coronavirus.
This initiative isn’t necessarily designed to help every participant being tested, but rather the results are a benefit to society and certain at-risk groups such as seniors. This high-risk category is at greater risk of complications or death due to COVID-19.
Prabhat Jha, D.Phil, MD, Officer Order of Canada, Director Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health