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Tracking COVID immunity

Researcher Anne Ellis, along with co-investigators Stephen Vanner and Prameet Sheth, receive federal funding to study COVID transmission and immunity among students and staff working in healthcare.

Researcher, clinician, and chair in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Queen’s University, Anne Ellis (Medicine) is perhaps best known for her role as Director of the Allergy Research Unit at the Kingston Health Sciences Centre. Now, her internationally recognized expertise in allergies and allergy treatment testing is being applied to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research Pivot

Through its COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), the Government of Canada recently announced over $220,000 in funding for Dr. Ellis to advance a new research study that will examine SARS-CoV-2 transmission and immunity among students and staff in clinical placements. The research goal is to test for SARS-CoV-2 and monitor the seroprevalence of health professional students returning to Queen’s campus, on arrival and throughout their studies.  

“A study of this size and nature is completely in our wheelhouse,” says Dr. Ellis. “The Research Unit routinely performs large-scale pharmaceutical or investigator-sponsored clinical trials featuring hundreds of research participants with significant logistics and safety measures at play. With allergy studies temporarily on hold due to COVID-19, our multidisciplinary team, including nurses, phlebotomists, technical and research staff, and graduate students, efficiently pivoted to develop this study in two short months.”

[Photo of healthcare workers]
Ellis' internationally recognized expertise in allergies and allergy treatment testing is being applied to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the support from the CITF, Dr. Ellis, along with co-Investigators Stephen Vanner (Medicine) and Prameet Sheth (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences), will recruit 500 asymptomatic students from the Faculty of Health Sciences. Through their placements, students will have direct interactions routinely with each other, the general public, and ambulatory and in-patient populations at the Kingston Health Sciences Centre, putting them at greater risk of exposure to the virus. With guidance from Gerald Evans, the Chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases, researchers will test the students for active COVID-19 infection. They will also test their blood for the presence of antibodies, which would suggest they had a previous infection. Participants will also complete a questionnaire to establish associations between their test results and other factors such as demographics, physical health measurements, mental health, lifestyle factors, medical history, travel history, COVID-19-related history, COVID-19 prevention practices, exposure, and testing.

Both types of tests will be repeated on all participants three more times over eight-months to capture any changes in infection rates and antibody levels.

Measuring Antibodies

“Our study will evaluate the likelihood of the students becoming infected with the virus and developing antibodies following infection,” says Dr. Ellis. Antibodies are protective proteins produced by our immune system upon exposure to a specific threat, such as a virus or pathogen, that help our body fight off the infection. They stick around in the blood after the body has cleared the infection, providing us with some immunological protection against reinfection. “If participants previously had COVID-19 but have no detectable antibodies in their blood, this might indicate that they are not protected against future reinfection of the virus. The presence of antibodies or lack thereof is equally exciting to determine."

[Photo of a healthcare worker]

Given the recent developments and vaccine approvals, the team has made some changes to the research. “We recently added several recovered COVID-19 patients from the local community into the study to measure their antibody levels as controls to further inform this study,” says Dr. Ellis.

Dr. Ellis plans to share the questionnaire findings with epidemiologist Kathie Doliszny to gain a ‘bigger picture’ understanding of COVID-19 infection and long-term immunological impacts. The results from this research study are also expected to help shape pandemic management policies and procedures instigated by universities and public health units across the country.

COVID Immunity Task Force

In late April 2020, the Government of Canada established the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force a representative set of volunteer experts, including Chief Public Health Officer and Head of Public Health h Agency of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam, from across the country who are focused on understanding the nature of immunity arising from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and its prevalence in the general population, specific communities, and priority populations.

For more information on the COVID Immunity Task Force, please visit the website.