Brian Dixon awarded grant to study COVID-19 immunity on University of Waterloo campus

Friday, February 12, 2021

Brain Dixon
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 $746,971.90 through Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) to support Professor Brian Dixon’s research, looking at SARS-CoV-2 transmission and immunity within the University of Waterloo community.

Compared with other universities, UWaterloo tends to house a more transient population as every 4 months, students move back and forth from coop jobs to campus, and may choose to go home for breaks. This makes the UWaterloo community a unique study population compared to other congregate settings like long-term care homes, where the populations are less fluid. Local students also have many connections to the broader Waterloo community and thus the relationship between the school and surrounding community may play a role in exposure and risk.

“Our first objective is to quantify the number of people with SARS-CoV-2 on local campuses, whether they have symptoms or not, by testing for active COVID-19 infections,” says Dixon. “We will also test their blood samples for two different immune responses, both antibody and memory T cell responses.”

Dixon’s study is currently recruiting 1000 students, faculty and staff from UWaterloo and other local student institutions. Each participant will be asked to take a test for active infection and provide three blood samples over at least 9 months so that exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and immunity to it, can be tracked.

“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,” continues Dr. Dixon. “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.”

“The results from these research studies will directly inform the pandemic management policies and procedures instigated by universities and public health units across the country,” says Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. “It is important to assess close-knit university institutions as hotspots for increased infection rates of COVID-19 in order to prevent the spread of the disease on campuses across Canada and in the wider community.”

This grant is one of many grants provided by the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force across Canada, to study congregate settings and learn about the nature of immunity arising from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and the prevalence of that infection in the general population, specific communities, and priority populations. The taskforce’s overriding objective is to generate data and ideas that inform interventions aimed at slowing and ultimately stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Canada.