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U of A researcher to study quality of antibody responses in COVID-19 patients

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A University of Alberta researcher and Canadian Blood Services are conducting a one-year serology study based on samples from blood donors. The study will look specifically at the quality of antibodies in those infected with COVID-19. Julia Wong explains – Jul 6, 2020

An Edmonton researcher and Canadian Blood Services will soon be embarking on a serology study to better understand the quality of antibody responses in people who have contracted COVID-19.

A serology test is a blood test that detects the presence of antibodies in a person’s blood, which will indicate if the person has previously been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

READ MORE: Alberta investing $10M for targeted COVID-19 antibody testing

Dr. Steven Drews, an associate professor at the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Alberta, said there is still much that is unknown about the body’s antibody response to the virus and the study may be able to help with developing policy as the country moves forward.

“We do not have a solid sense of what it means to have been exposed to [COVID-19] or to be asymptomatic and have been infected,” he said.

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Drews said infected individuals can generate antibodies, but it isn’t clear how long those antibodies last for. He said it is also uncertain whether all the antibodies that are generated will actually be protective or whether the absence of antibodies could still indicate some level of protection.

READ MORE: Alberta in final stages of validating serology tests to detect COVID-19 antibodies

“There’s some growing literature on this where some people may have been infected and not produced any measurable antibody. We don’t really know what that means though. It could be those people still have immunity, but it could be within their cells and not measurable as antibodies,” he said.

“Everybody seems to be reacting slightly differently to these infections because everyone’s probably had different immunological primers or maybe exposure events. They may have had different types of symptoms.”

Drews, who is also an associate director of microbiology at Canadian Blood Services, was recently awarded more than $1 million by Alberta Innovates and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for the study.

The research will look at leftover blood samples from Canadian Blood Services donors across the country, except for Quebec and the northern territories.

Drews said 1,500 specimens will be sampled every month over a 12-month period.

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“You get a sense of population-wise, at least in blood donors, over a period of time, what the larger population-level antibodies are going to be,” he said.

“The idea is, if you can see that those antibody responses mature, become stronger or more neutralizing over time or you maybe find a special antibody over time then you’d have a sense that maybe your population will be developing some sort of protective immunity — what we call herd immunity — which is unclear that that’s really happening in a stable way.”

Dr. Chantale Pambrun, the director of the Centre for Innovation at Canadian Blood Services, said the research fit in naturally with the work the organization does.

READ MORE: Canadian Blood Services sees increase in Alberta donations after call to action

“We have done seroprevalence studies in the past where we’re trying to understand things like hep E…so when SARS-COVID-2 came around, it’s natural for that team – the epidemiology team, the clinical microbiology team – to be looking at the virus within our blood supply,” she said.

Pambrun said the organization has been keeping samples for the research since mid-May. She said the organization is happy to not only be a part of the study but to let their donors know they are part of something much bigger.

“Now they’re contributing to public health policies, which is fantastic,” she said.

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-with files from Allison Bench, Global News

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