Eight new research projects are getting underway in Canada to investigate COVID-19 variants of concern (VOCs) and variants of interest (VOIs). These research projects span from investigating the social factors that may protect Indigenous peoples – or increase their vulnerability to – COVID-19 and VOCs, to the creation of a Canadian Wastewater Surveillance Database.
All are being funded by CoVaRR-Net, or Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network, a network of interdisciplinary researchers from institutions across the country created to address the potential threat of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. CoVaRR-Net was created with a $9 million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and this first set of research projects represents an approximate investment of $1.2 million.
“CoVaRR-Net’s goal is to rapidly answer critical and immediate questions regarding variants, such as their increased transmissibility, likelihood to cause severe cases of COVID-19, and resistance to vaccines,” explains Dr. Marc-André Langlois, Professor at the University of Ottawa and CoVaRR-Net Executive Director. “Our aim is to be a reliable source of evidence-based information. The findings from the experts in our network and their teams will provide decision makers in Canada, but also abroad, with guidance regarding drug therapy, vaccine effectiveness, and other public health strategies.”
A Glance at the Funded Research Projects
“We know Indigenous populations in Canada and the United States have been disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact of VOCs is continually evolving,” says Dr. Kimberly Huyser, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, Indigenous Engagement, Development, and Research Pillar Lead for CoVaRR-Net, as well as project lead. “This project will not only investigate the social factors that may protect Indigenous peoples – or make them more vulnerable to – COVID-19 and VOCs, but we will also curate data to understand Indigenous experiences and views of the pandemic and identify areas of concern for Indigenous peoples in Canada regarding variants.”
Given that wastewater can act as a key early monitoring system for virus spread and detect new variants (the virus can be detected in human waste 3-7 days before outbreaks are recognized), three of the newly funded projects involve wastewater and will:
- Use cutting-edge technologies to enable intensive wastewater screening, including to test all positive COVID-19 samples for variant signatures in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The data will help to better understand the spread of the virus and its variants, and whether they evade vaccine protection;
- Create a Canadian Wastewater Surveillance Database, which will, among other things, identify where case numbers may be fluctuating and communicate this information to decision makers so they can be proactive in minimizing outbreaks; and
- Develop a unified framework for genome sequencing and data analysis across Canada and develop methods to track mutations and variants via wastewater.
Other projects investigate a wide array of issues pertaining to understanding variants and their consequences on the pandemic in Canada and around the world. Here are the highlights of other important funded projects:
- A “deep dive” into the immune response, looking at which genes are turned on and the relative strength of the responses from these cells based on the type of vaccine the person took, the combination (if there was one) and the dosing interval.
- The effectiveness of vaccines against the variants, developing new technologies that can test hundreds, and then thousands, of potential variants to anticipate those that may evade the immune system and/or infect different types of cells in the body (e.g., lungs, gut, brain and lining of blood vessels).
- A record keeping of the existing and emerging VOCs, as this will be an important part of public health practice for the foreseeable future. The study aims to help public health units across the country develop efficient and effective processes to detect and mitigate the spread of these variants.
- Simplifying access to knowledge, helping Canadians quickly access the latest and most accurate information on VOCs to enable them to make well-informed decisions. This study team will develop automated search tools for the general public, write syntheses on a regular basis to guide Canadians, and adapt a web application to communicate complex information regarding VOCs to the public.
“CoVaRR-Net has nearly completed its set-up, after being funded only three months ago, and we aim to be a resource for Canadians and for researchers,” states Dr. Langlois. “For the public, our goal is to be a leading source of trusted information on variants, and these eight projects will give us more information to share. Community outreach & engagement as well as health equity and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion guide our Network’s operations and we’re focussed on ensuring the science and CoVaRR-Net’s work is accessible to the public.”
For Canadian researchers, CoVaRR-Net aims to create mechanisms, such as a national biobank, a data sharing platform, and material sharing agreements to allow them to share physical research resources, data, and knowledge. “The goal there is to make it easier and faster for researchers to get what they need to study variants in Canada, in order to accelerate research… and findings,” adds Dr. Langlois.
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