A team of UWindsor professors developing novel ways to detect COVID and limit the spread of its variants has been awarded $500,000 from a federal agency that funds health research.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), recognizing Windsor and Essex County can offer advance warning of spikes in infection rates by virtue of its location, is funding a team of researchers led by biochemistry professor Yufeng Tong. Dr. Tong, together with biochemistry professor Kenneth Ng, biomedical sciences professor Lisa Porter, psychology professor Kendall Soucie, and Mike McKay, executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, will collaborate on the project to tackle COVID from multiple fronts.
“Windsor-Essex sits at one of the busiest border crossings between the USA and Canada and is located at the heart of intensive year-round agricultural operations with a high concentration of migrant workers who arrive seasonally from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. And more than 6,000 residents, including 2,000 health care workers, commute daily to the USA,” Tong said.
“Transmission resulting from travel makes this region particularly susceptible to the introduction of novel coronavirus variants.”
The funding is part of the federal government’s response to gaps in research that have been identified as the pandemic continues. The $500,000 the team has received is the maximum award. It will allow for greater collaboration and expansion of projects already underway relating to SARS-Cov-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
One such project involves detecting coronavirus variants in sewage.
Dr. McKay, an environmental microbiologist working with a network of researchers and agencies throughout Canada, heads a local team from the faculties of science and engineering analyzing water samples from sewers on the UWindsor campus and from wastewater treatment plants in Windsor and Essex County. The team is also testing samples from Detroit through partnership with the Great Lakes Water Authority to detect potential for cross-border transmission of the virus and its variants.
The testing of sewage has proven to be an effective early warning system for community-spread infection, McKay said, since people can shed the virus in their feces before they begin to show symptoms of infection.
“Wastewater surveillance acts as a community swab for early detection of emerging outbreaks,” McKay said.
“This funding will give us the ability to do genetic sequencing on those samples to identify emerging variants and it will allow for a more rapid response — as early as next day.”
Early in the pandemic, Tong partnered with biotech company SM Research to develop a rapid test. His test is being used in a project with Dr. Porter that involves analyzing the saliva of people on UWindsor’s campus each week, releasing the results to participants through a cellphone app.
“Our students are highly embedded in this community, with most living and working off-campus,” she said.
Since students are in the age demographic most likely not to show symptoms of the virus despite being infected, finding ways to keep tabs on their health can be key to controlling transmission, said Porter.
“The asymptomatic young population is of particular concern of the spread of variants and deserves close attention.”
Tong also has been working closely with Dr. Ng, who throughout the pandemic has been working to develop drugs to treat COVID-19. Together, Ng and Tong are studying key proteins from the virus, using computer-simulated and hands-on lab experiments to discover why some variants are more infectious than others and how they respond to existing vaccines.
“We need to better understand how changes in the genes and proteins of the virus affect the course of the disease,” said Ng. “Our work will become even more important as new variants continue to show up, especially ones that are found in the samples obtained from the wastewater and saliva testing parts of this project.”
Dr. Soucie is heading a UWindsor campus survey that will gather perceptions regarding COVID screening and vaccination.
“Our pilot phase included a questionnaire that assessed attitudes toward COVID-19 and the testing procedures, fears, and concerns,” Soucie said. “Expanding this survey will help us gather insights to make health messaging and on-site screening procedures more effective, particularly as our students, staff, and faculty head back to campus.”
Results of testing conducted as part of the project are publicly accessible through an online dashboard created by UWindsor computer scientists led by Dr. Pooya Moradian Zadeh.
WE-Spark Health Institute, a research partnership involving the University of Windsor, Windsor Regional Hospital, Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital, Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, and St. Clair College, hosts the dashboard and provided seed funding for much of the research involved in the project.
The project has also garnered the support of the Municipality of Leamington, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, and the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.
K.W. Michael Siu, UWindsor’s vice-president, research and innovation, said the new funding will allow the team to expand on its important work.
“This is a high-impact, multi-disciplinary project,” Dr. Siu said. “It is an example of how the University of Windsor is taking the lead and working with the wider community to provide early surveillance and rapid detection of COVID-19 to prevent the spread of disease.”
The funding will support the research for one year.