Canadian scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 – including several at the University of Toronto – have received funding from the federal government to track and test viral variants that are now spreading rapidly across the country.
The federal government said it will establish the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network through a $9 million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, part of $14.3 million in new funding for research on COVID-19 variants.
More than 30 scientists are part of the effort, which is led by Marc-André Langlois at the University of Ottawa.
“Viral variants are emerging that have multiple combinations of mutations that may have different effects on the virus’s ability to infect cells or to hide from the immune system,” said Anne-Claude Gingras, a professor of molecular genetics at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a senior investigator in the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI) at Sinai Health who is among eight co-principal applicants on the project.
“While many of the research groups involved, including ours, were already working on characterizing variants, this new funding will enable them to do so in a more efficient manner through collaborations across the country.”
Gingras is a cancer researcher who specializes in proteomics. She pivoted her lab in the early stages of the pandemic to develop blood tests that can look for antibodies to viral proteins. She said laboratories with specialized expertise will be able to join the network and contribute to variant characterization and rapidly share the results back with the rest of the team.
The scientists hope the network will allow them to rapidly act on the emergence of new variants of concern by quickly learning the virus’s features, including the potential for re-infection.
Jennifer Gommerman, a professor of immunology at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and co-applicant on the grant, said the goal of the network is to communicate the new information in real time to Canadian public health officials and decision-makers, as well to the broader international scientific community.
“The data generated will directly alert us to the potential threats of re-infection, increased transmissibility and pathogenicity, and vaccine resistance,” Gommerman said. “This network was designed on one critical principle: to provide scientifically-based rapid-response to the variants of concern.”
Other Temerty Faculty of Medicine scientists involved in the project include James Rini, a professor in the departments of molecular genetics and biochemistry; Jason Moffat, a professor of molecular genetics and in the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research; and Andrew Morris, a professor in the department of medicine who is also medical director of the Sinai Health-University Health Network antimicrobial stewardship program.
Jeff Wrana is also part of the new network. He is professor of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a senior investigator at LTRI who recently used his robotics lab to create an automated, next-generation sequencing platform that can accurately screen thousands for COVID-19.
Wrana and colleagues are now using that system, called SPAR-Seq, to screen all positive samples identified in the shared clinical diagnostics lab at Sinai Health and University Health Network. The goal is to identify known and novel variants that emerge in the population and are resistant to vaccination.
The grant will allow the network to operate for one year and to create a Biobank for rapid sharing of samples and data with other biobanks across Canada in order to have a harmonized approach to fight against COVID-19.