U of T public health researchers awarded funding to study COVID-19 infection and immunity in Canada

September 17, 2020

Six faculty from U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, including four from IHPME, were awarded research grants from the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force totalling more than $5.7 million.

By Alisa Kim

Six researchers at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, including four from the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME), were awarded funding from the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF). Collectively, they will receive more than $5.7 million from CITF for their studies, which aim to improve understanding of infection and protection from COVID-19 amongst health care workers, children, people experiencing homelessness and the LGBTQ community, among other groups.

“Congratulations to all of the recipients on their successful proposals. Your research will yield vital knowledge about the degree of COVID-19 infection of Canadians and its impact. This work will also facilitate collaborations with research teams across the country that will lead to important insights to help manage the pandemic,” says Professor Audrey Laporte, director of IHPME.

Dr. Philip Awadalla, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, was awarded $510,799 for his project, SUPPORT-Canada, which stands for SUrveying Prospective Population COhorts for COVID-19 pRevalence and ouTcomes in Canada. The grant builds upon an investment of $2.1 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) through its COVID-19 Rapid Research Competition. He is leading a team that will collect data and blood samples from Canadians to identify factors contributing to COVID-19 susceptibility and drivers of poor outcomes. Participants in the study are from CanPath, (Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health), Canada’s largest population cohort. “We can assess variation in immunity levels across Canada and capture genetic factors that may contribute to infection and severity,” says Awadalla.

Dr. Angela Cheung, a professor at IHPME, is co-lead of the Canadian COVID-19 Prospective Cohort Study, which was approved for $574,975 by CITF. The project, which is co-led by Dr. Margaret Herridge, of U of T’s Institute of Medical Science, is also funded by CIHR, for a total investment of $2,687,475. The nationwide study will look at 2,000 people infected with COVID-19 who fall into three groups: non-hospitalized, hospitalized and critically ill, and those admitted to the intensive care unit. The funding will enable the team to do blood tests for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in these groups as well as in people with a suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. “This [research] will help us understand the extent to which COVID-19 has affected the Canadian population, and the relationship between patients’ immunity and symptoms,” says Cheung.

Dr. Daniel Grace, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, was awarded $106,625 by CITF in addition to CIHR funding of $581,276 to study COVID-19 infection and immunity in gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. The goal is to understand how the disease affects mental health outcomes, sexual behaviours and access to essential health care of sexual and gender minority men. Grace says the research is “crucial given that this diverse group has historically experienced significant disparities in physical, mental, and sexual health, amplified by systemic marginalization and high barriers to health care.”

The largest grant awarded by the task force is to Dr. Stephen Hwang, a professor at IHPME, who will receive $1,901,698. He is leading a team that is working with people experiencing homelessness to create models to track and predict COVID-19 infection in this population. The aim is to understand patterns and the trajectory of the disease in people who are homeless to learn what works to prevent, detect and manage COVID-19 in this high-risk group. The data will inform and improve responses to the pandemic in cities across Canada. “I was both stunned and overjoyed when I heard about this award,” says Hwang. “The funding will enable our team to do this very important work and contribute to an all-out effort to control COVID-19 in Canada over the coming months.”

Dr. Jonathon Maguire, an associate professor at IHPME, says he was “absolutely delighted” to learn his project, “TARGet Kids! COVID-19 study of children and families: safe return to school, work and play,” was funded. He was awarded $974,826 by CITF. “This award will assist us in understanding COVID-19 exposure and immunity among children and parents who are participating in the TARGet Kids! cohort study, which is one of the largest children’s health studies in Canada,” he says.

Dr. Allison McGeer, a professor at IHPME, was awarded $1,649,000 from CITF to investigate whether Canada’s health care workers are at higher risk of COVID-19 than other working adults in the country.

The CITF was established by the federal government in April 2020. It is partnering with CIHR to fund research teams across Canada that will work together to form integrated insights into the length and degree of immune protection from COVID-19. In all, CITF approved 22 projects for a total investment of $12.4 million.