WCMR Launches ASTRAW Project for COVID-19 Screening

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Waterloo Centre for Microbial Research (WCMR) is coordinating a campus project screening for COVID using saliva. Professors Trevor Charles and Jozef Nissimov from the Department of Biology, alongside Drs. Patricia Quadros and Carly Huitema of the WCMR have been awarded $120,000 to determine the effectiveness of a new rapid test and help prevent outbreaks on campus.

Testing saliva samples for SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA.
As vaccination rates climb in Canada, there remains significant need to continue to monitor the presence of COVID-19 in our communities. We need to remain vigilant for the appearance of new variants that may hide as asymptomatic infections, or which can evade our current vaccination efforts.

Saliva collection kits are assembled
Routine surveillance programs benefit from easy, non-invasive technologies. The nasopharyngeal swab for sample collection combined with a standard PCR test for detection is commonly used to look for COVID-19 infections. However, as anyone who has experienced testing in Ontario can attest, it is not the most comfortable procedure and requires specialized equipment and training.

In contrast to the nasopharyngeal swab, saliva collected from by spitting in a tube can be used  instead. Multiple studies have shown that PCR testing of saliva samples is as effective as PCR testing of nasopharyngeal swab samples, but with easier collection. Viruses of any positive samples can be sequenced to help in the tracking of Variants of Concern (VoC).

"As the vaccination rate continues to increase, with perhaps reduced incidence of symptomatic infections, it will be even more important to detect those asymptomatic infections that might still contribute to COVID spread and even outbreaks,” says Charles. “Furthermore, the genome sequencing could facilitate the identification of known variants and the discovery of new variants that are circulating."

qPCR machine running samples
This study will complement other efforts at the University of Waterloo, including another Biology study from Professor Mark Servos that focuses on the detection of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants in wastewater, and also other saliva studies such as the one led by Professors Dawn Bowdish and Eric Brown at McMaster University.

More information, including how to participant, is available at the ASTRAW webpage.

This project was funded through a Waterloo Strategic COVID-19 Research Award from University of Waterloo Office of Research.