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DLSPH Researchers to Study COVID Seroprevalence in High-​Risk Populations

October 28/2020

By Arlette Bax

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected marginalized communities across Canada. The Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (CanPath), hosted by the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has received a $1.9 million investment from Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) to fund a study of COVID-19 seroprevalence across Canada.

The study aims to identify individuals who have antibodies for COVID-19 infection, which may not have been tested or experienced symptoms, focusing on specific communities and individuals that are at higher risk of infection. This information will be used to identify factors that make some more susceptible to the virus.

CanPath is a national population health research platform that follows the health of 330,000 Canadians (or 1% of the population), led by DLSPH Professors Philip Awadalla and John McLaughlin. This pan-Canadian study will test 20,000 of its participants for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, an indication of past infection with the novel coronavirus. The study will focus on adults ages 30 and older in populations that are traditionally under-represented in research studies or are among the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19, including residents of long-term care homes and people living in under-served communities with higher numbers of COVID-19 cases in both urban and rural settings.

Prof. Philip Awadalla

“CanPath’s large number of participants, pan-Canadian reach, and population coverage enable us to detect differences in exposure and immunity among Canadians. We can capture how age, sex, socio-demographic factors, geography, genetics and health history impact varying immune responses to COVID-19 in Canada,” says Prof. Awadalla, National Scientific Director of CanPath and also a professor in the department of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. “With data captured by the CanPath COVID-19 survey we rapidly implemented earlier this year, we are able to identify participants who may have been exposed as well as infected. We can also identify how pre-existing conditions, captured through health Information routinely collected over the past decade, impact COVID-19 disease severity.”

“CanPath is an excellent example of a pan-Canadian collaborative effort that has engaged partners from many organizations and provinces for well over a decade.  As a result, these critical questions on immunity in the Canadian population can be addressed in an efficient and coordinated manner,” says Prof. Vivek Goel of DLSPH’s  Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation and a member of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force.

“Over the years, CanPath has contributed data and developed partnerships with numerous researchers and organizations across Canada,” adds Prof. McLaughlin, Executive Director of CanPath. “These partnerships enable our provincial and regional teams to work with communities that are at greatest risk. CanPath will work in support of Indigenous leaders and scholars to study the seroprevalence of COVID-19 antibodies among Indigenous communities. We are honoured to be selected to support the national COVID-19 control efforts by being able to rapidly provide actionable insights to federal and provincial decision-makers.”

This COVID-19 serology study builds upon a previous grant of more than $2.5 million awarded to CanPath by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the CITF. The funding of the SUPPORT-Canada initiative was to conduct COVID-19 surveys on the full CanPath cohort as well as immuno-genomic analyses on a subset of 4,000 participants. This new serological study will be implemented in collaboration with CanPath’s regional cohorts: the BC Generations Project, Alberta’s Tomorrow Project, the Manitoba Tomorrow Project, Ontario Health Study, CARTaGENE (Quebec) and the Atlantic Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health.