Queen's Research Team Receives Federal Funding to study COVID transmission and immunity among students and staff

Kingston – While many university classes across Canada are being held online, some programs require in-person learning and access to on- and off-campus research and learning facilities. This increases the risk of exposure for students, faculty and staff to SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19. To address this, the Government of Canada is investing $223,161 through Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) to support a research study looking at SARS-CoV-2 transmission and immunity on the Queen's University campus.

Led by Dr. Anne Ellis Professor, Departments of Medicine and Biomedical and Molecular Sciences with Co-Investigators Drs. Stephen Vanner and Prameet Sheth at Queen's University, the study will recruit 500 students from the Faculty of Health Sciences who are not showing any symptoms. These are students who have direct and routine interactions 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. Researchers will test the students for active COVID-19 infection and will test their blood for the presence of antibodies, suggesting they had a previous infection. Both types of tests will be repeated on all participants three more times over eight months in order to capture any changes in infection rates and antibody levels.

The study has two primary objectives according to Ellis. "First", she stated, "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.” 

Using follow-up questionnaires, researchers will determine students’ degree of anxiety and their coping mechanisms, to make correlations between mental health status and changes in their COVID-19 testing status. They will look at changes in mental health status associated with learning about COVID-19 test results for active infection and for immunity.

Further, the study will "also evaluate the likelihood of the students becoming infected with the virus and developing antibodies," Ellis added. "Participants will complete a questionnaire to establish associations between their test results and other factors such as demographics, physical health measurements, lifestyle factors, medical history, travel history, COVID-19-related history, COVID-19 prevention practises, exposure and testing.” 

Dr. Allison McGeer of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force Leadership Group and a Professor at the University of Toronto sees a real need for this study as “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."  She went on to note that in light of the significant spike in cases in several areas in Canada throughout wave two of the pandemic, "we need studies giving us more data and these studies will do it.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam also supports the study led by Dr. Ellis.  “The results from this research study will directly inform the pandemic management policies and procedures implemented by universities and the public health regions where they are located across the country," said Tam.  Further, to "support campuses as safe places to live and learn," Tam added, "it is important to assess rates of COVID-19 and risk factors for infection in these close-knit institutions to protect university students, faculty and staff.”