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How immune are you?

Faculty of Medicine researchers receive half a million in funding for COVID-19 immunity studies

By Michelle Osmond

Before March 11 and before most of the world had ever heard of COVID-19 and before the ensuing pandemic brought the world to a standstill, nearly 121,000 people worldwide already had the virus.

A new Memorial University study is recruiting COVID-19 cases, both confirmed and also those who suspect they have had COVID-19, to study their antibodies. The researchers are hoping those antibodies will tell them more about immune responses.

Dr. Michael Grant’s study, Characterization of Cellular and Humoral Immunity Against SARS-CoV-2, is receiving nearly half a million dollars from Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), in collaboration with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Dr. Grant is a professor of immunology and associate dean in the Faculty of Medicine’s Division of BioMedical Sciences.

Dr. Rod Russell, professor of virology and immunology with the Division of Biomedical Sciences, and PhD candidate Kayla Holder are part of Dr. Grant’s team, which is part of a network of seven teams across the country.

Severity and durability

The researchers say they will need to screen more than 200 people to get at least 20 individuals in groups with severe, moderate, mild and no symptoms for a good sample size.

To do this, they’re looking for as many of the people with confirmed COVID-19 cases in Newfoundland and Labrador as they can reach, as well as people who suspect they may have had COVID-19 or may have had asymptomatic infection.

“We plan to investigate antibody and T cell responses against SARS-CoV-2 in relation to the severity of infection they experienced, measure antiviral functions of the immune response and assess the durability of these responses over time,” explained Dr. Grant.

Study participants will provide blood samples. The researchers will then separate the plasma for the antibody studies from the white blood cells. The white blood cells will be used for the T cell response studies.

“We will be employing antibody tests, which have not been licensed yet in Canada, to confirm or exclude previous infection.” — Dr. Michael Grant

Dr. Grant is expecting a lot of interest in the study as he says “quite a few” people think they may have contracted the virus before March and are interested in getting an antibody test to confirm their suspicions.

In fact, about half the people who’ve responded so far believe they may have had COVID-19 before March and therefore were not tested. He stresses however, that they are a research lab, not a diagnostic lab, so they can only identify whether or not someone has the antibody.

“We will be employing antibody tests, which have not been licensed yet in Canada, to confirm or exclude previous infection,” he points out.

“As they are not licensed, this is experimental research, but we expect to learn something more about the real prevalence of infection, frequency of asymptomatic infection and immune system characteristics that effectively limit the severity of infection.”

Current and future infections

Ultimately, Dr. Grant expects the results to have a global benefit for vaccine design and understanding the role of immunity in short- and long-term protection against infection.

However, a better understanding of the durability of immune responses and associated antiviral functions for those who’ve had the virus might help with protection against future infections.

The study could have an added benefit of identifying plasma donors, if that continues to be an experimental treatment for COVID-19.

National funding

The CITF, in collaboration with CIHR, which also granted funding to Dr. Michelle Ploughman’s laboratory recently, is supporting 22 studies that focus on improving our understanding of COVID-19 immunity in Canada.

An investment of $12.4 million in these studies supports both translational research into SARS-CoV-2 immunity and studies to determine the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in various populations.

The CITF was established by the Government of Canada in late April 2020 to mobilize studies to understand SARS-CoV-2 infection and immunity in Canada.

In a news release announcing the COVID-19 funding, Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, emphasized the importance of studying immunity.

“Acquiring immunity at the individual and community level is key to ending this pandemic,” she said. “While we await a vaccine, improving our understanding of immunity among different populations in Canada who have acquired COVID-19 will help us limit the spread of the virus.”

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, been in contact with someone diagnosed or if you believe you may have previously had COVID-19 and would like to take part in the study, please see here or contact Dr. Grant’s laboratory.

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