U of T experts to help lead Canada's COVID-19 Immunity Task Force

May 5 2020, 12:37 pm

Experts from the University of Toronto are poised to help lead Canada’s COVID-19 Task Force, which aims to better understand the coronavirus.

President Emeritus David Naylor, a professor in the university’s department of medicine in the Faculty of Medicine, is co-chair of the Task Force. Vivek Goel, vice-president of research and innovation, and strategic initiatives, and a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is on board as well.

The Task Force also includes Allison McGeer, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and in the department of medicine, and who is also the director of the Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Research Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the launch of the Task Force on April 23, which was to be comprised of health experts and scientists focused on serology testing research.

In addition to Dr. Naylor, the Task Force will be under the direction of Dr. Catherine Hankins, Dr. Tim Evans, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, and Dr. Mona Nemer, the chief science adviser to the prime minister.

One million Canadians will be tested as part of a two-year study that will focus on immunity. Test results will be searched for the presence of antibodies that would indicate prior exposure to the virus.

“Many people have limited symptoms or no symptoms – that’s clear from the literature and from Canadian evidence this far – and most of those individuals would never be tested through diagnostic swabs for active COVID-19 disease,” said Naylor, former dean of U of T’s Faculty of Medicine and healthcare policy expert.

“Therefore, we can only figure out if they have been infected by looking back, and that means using serology tests that look for antibodies in the blood indicative of past COVID-19 infection.”

In his announcement of the Task Force’s launch, Trudeau said that the team will aim to learn whether people who have had the virus are immune and, if so, the length of immunity.

“The University of Toronto takes very seriously its responsibility to contribute to our understanding of COVID-19 and generate knowledge surrounding this disease’s impact on diverse populations across Canada,” said Goel, a public health expert and founding head of Public Health Ontario, which was organized in response to the SARS outbreak of 2003.

“The task force will dedicate itself to providing high-quality data on degree and duration of immunity to inform policies surrounding, among other things, physical-distancing measures and related restrictions on social and economic activity.”

In a release, task force members said that they had agreed on an “accelerated process” that would, by mid-May, enable the “scale-up” of fieldwork that already exists on immunity.

“The Group also began setting an agenda for new immunity analyses to meet the needs of Canadian decision-makers and the general public,” the release said.

According to Naylor, immune status will be an integral part of developing informed strategies for vaccination.

“When you think about vaccinations and what strategy you want to deploy, you would normally focus on two groups: those at highest risk of adverse effects from the illness – that’s obviously going to be the elderly, with comorbidity,” he said, “but you also want to focus on people who have higher risks of exposure such as health-care workers who are not immune.”