UWindsor research teams land $500,000 for COVID research

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A University of Windsor team has received $500,000 in federal funding to continue research in a variety of ways to detect COVID-19 and limit the spread of its variants.

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The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) recognizes that Windsor and Essex County can give advance warning of spikes in infection rates due to their location as one of the busiest border crossings between the United States and Canada.

The agency is funding a team of researchers led by biochemistry professor Yufeng Tong. The team also includes biochemistry professor Kenneth Ng, biomedical science professor Lisa Porter, psychology professor Kendall Soucie and Mike McKay, executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. They will collaborate to fight COVID on multiple fronts.

“Windsor-Essex sits at one of the busiest border crossings between the United States and Canada and is located in 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 healthcare workers, travel to the United States daily,” Tong said in a press release. “Travel-induced transmission makes this region particularly susceptible to the introduction of novel coronavirus variants.”

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This is a high-impact multidisciplinary project.

The funding is part of the federal government’s response to research gaps that have been identified as the pandemic continues. The amount of $500,000 is the maximum reward.

This will allow for greater collaboration and expansion of projects already underway regarding SARS-Cov-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

One such project involves detecting coronavirus variants in wastewater.

McKay works with a network of researchers and agencies across Canada. He leads a local team from science and engineering faculties analyzing water samples from sewers at the UWindsor campus and sewage treatment plants in Windsor and Essex County. The team is also testing samples from Detroit through a partnership with the Great Lakes Water Authority to detect the potential for cross-border transmission of the virus and its variants.

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The sewage test has proven to be an effective early warning system for community-spread infections, McKay said, because people can shed the virus in their feces before they start showing symptoms of infection.

“Wastewater monitoring 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 these samples to identify emerging variants and it will enable a faster response – the very next day.”

Mike McKay, executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, examines an effluent water sample from the Detroit River on Wednesday.  McKay and his team at the University of Windsor are studying sewage waste to monitor COVID-19.
Mike McKay, executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, examines an effluent water sample from the Detroit River on Wednesday. McKay and his team at the University of Windsor are studying sewage waste to monitor COVID-19. Photo by Nick Brancaccio /Windsor Star

Early in the pandemic, Tong partnered with biotech firm SM Research to develop a rapid test. His test is being used in a project with Porter that involves analyzing the saliva of people on the UWindsor campus each week, reporting the results to participants via a cellphone app.

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“Our students are strongly integrated into this community, with most living and working off campus,” she said.

Since college 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 may be key to controlling transmission, Porter said.

“The asymptomatic young population is particularly concerned about the spread of variants and deserves special attention,” she said.

Tong also worked closely with Ng, who throughout the pandemic worked on developing drugs to treat COVID-19. Together, Ng and Tong are studying key proteins in the virus, using computer-simulated, hands-on lab experiments to find out why certain variants are more infectious than others and how they respond to existing vaccines.

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“We need to better understand how changes in the genes and proteins of the virus affect disease course,” Ng said. “Our work will become even more important as new variants continue to emerge, especially those found in samples obtained from the sewage and saliva test portions of this project.”

Soucie is leading a survey on the UWindsor campus that will collect perceptions regarding COVID testing and vaccination.

“Our pilot phase included a questionnaire that assessed attitudes towards COVID-19 and testing procedures, fears and concerns,” Soucie said. “Expanding this survey will help us gather information to make on-site health messaging and screening procedures more effective, especially when our students, staff, and faculty return to campus.”

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Test results from the project are publicly available through an online dashboard created by UWindsor computer scientists led by 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 array of board and provided seed funding for much of the research involved in the project.

The project has also received support from the Municipality of Leamington, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit and the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.

KW Michael Siu, vice president of research and innovation at UWindsor, said the new funding will allow the team to expand their important work.

“This is a high-impact, multidisciplinary project,” Siu said. “This 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.

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