2 Ontario universities to study COVID-19 transmission, immunity on campus

Queen's University and the University of Waterloo will be following students and staff over the next several months to study the effects of COVID-19 on campus. Matt Head/Global Kingston

Queen’s University and the University of Waterloo are receiving funding from the federal government to study the effects of COVID-19 on university campuses.

The Canadian government is investing over $1 million in the two separate studies, which will follow 500 students from Queen’s and 1,000 students and faculty from Waterloo over the next several months.

The Queen’s study will specifically focus on testing asymptomatic students from the university’s health sciences department for the level of transmission among university students and for possible immunity.

Anne Ellis, a researcher and professor in the department of medicine at Queen’s, said these students are ideal candidates for the study because they’ve already had direct and regular contact with the public and with patients at local hospitals, putting them at greater risk of exposure to the virus.

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“It’s quite possible that these medical students are rotating wards with patients with COVID-19, or possible COVID-19 cases. We thought this is a unique opportunity to hone in on it,” Ellis said.

Click to play video: 'Canada’s Dr. Tam says new coronavirus variants need rapid response'
Canada’s Dr. Tam says new coronavirus variants need rapid response

Over the eight months, researchers will test the students for active COVID-19 infection and gauge how many of those who are positive are asymptomatic. Researchers will also test their blood for the presence of antibodies to see if this leads to any type of immunity.

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“This is a great opportunity to do testing on asymptomatic students and actually check their antibodies, as well considering that they may have been exposed when they went home,” she said.

Finally, Ellis says the study will also focus on the mental health effects associated with the pandemic.

“It’s a standardized questionnaire that looks at generalized anxiety, depression and suicidality,” Ellis said.

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University of Waterloo

Over the next nine months, 1,000 waterloo-area post-secondary students and faculty will also have their blood tested for COVID-19 antibodies. The Waterloo study is meant to see how different people respond to the virus.

According to the university, the population on campus is more transient than at other universities due to travel related to co-op jobs required in many programs. This added movement in the student body, along with travelling home for breaks and the general involvement with the Waterloo community, will give the researchers access to a “fluid” population to study, the university said.

“We aim to recruit a variety of participants who will help us understand how the virus affects different sexes, blood groups, age groups, and ethnic groups exposed to similar risk levels in approximately the same environment,” said Brian Dixon, who is leading the study in Waterloo, in a University news release.

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“We hope to develop profiles to show us which groups are more prone to catching SARS-CoV-2, and which are more likely to have symptoms on a university campus.”

Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, says the results from both studies will inform local public health units on what procedures and policies they should implement to further protect students, staff and the community. The money was allocated from the country’s COVID-19 Immunity Taskforce.

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