Canadian universities putting students in COVID test study

Two Ontario-based institutions will be testing students to see how transmission spreads among different subgroups and the potential links with immunity.
By: | February 12, 2021

Studies being performed at two Canadian institutions of higher education – the University of Waterloo and Queens University – are aiming to see how COVID-19 spreads on college campuses and how immunity to the virus within individuals may be achieved.

The $1 million effort being funded by the Canadian government will tap students, faculty and staff to take part in two separate eight- to nine-month studies that will look at various demographic groups in determining which ones “are more prone to catching SARS-CoV-2 and which are more likely to have symptoms,” according to Dr. Brian Dixon, Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Biology at the University of Waterloo.

“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,” Dixon said. “We will also test their blood samples for two different immune responses, both antibody and memory T cell responses.”

The college and Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) plans to enlist 1,000 recruits from several Ontario-area institutions who will then take part over a nine-month period getting blood-tested three times. The potential for transmission and immunity ultimately will be tracked for those who are in similar environments, giving colleges and universities a better sense of how different cohorts are being affected.

“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,” Dixon said. “We hope to better understand the risk of contracting the virus on a campus and inform measures to prevent it.”

Meanwhile at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, a team led by professor Dr. Anne Ellis in the Departments of Medicine and Biomedical and Molecular Sciences will be taking 500 students who have no symptoms of COVID-19 but regularly interact with various stakeholders at the Kingston Health Sciences center and testing them four times.

“We have two primary objectives,” Ellis said. “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.”

Part of the studies not only will include the physical outcomes of students but also their mental health, in particular, stress and how they are handling it. Periodically, as they are being tested, they will be asked to fill out questionnaires.

“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,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, 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.”