Eight UBC-led projects selected for COVID-19 response funding

Campus may look empty, but the scientists are as active as ever. And while there may not be sports to cheer on in the fall, we can all feel a sense of school pride about what our research teams accomplish.

Eight UBC affiliated projects have been selected to receive a portion of the $2 million in funding provided through the Michael Smith Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund, with support from the provincial government. The selected projects look to address the questions arising from the pandemic to better inform policy-makers around control of the disease moving forward.

Project lead of one of the selected projects and assistant professor in the UBC School of Nursing Dr. Farvinaz Havaei, noted that “[i]f it wasn’t because of this funding we would not have actually been able to conduct the research.”

One of the major projects led by Dr. Manish Sadarangani, assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine seeks to explore how many children and young adults in BC have already had COVID-19 by performing antibody tests on a large sample.

“[Alongside] the people who have symptoms of COVID-19, who often get tested, there have also been reported cases of asymptomatic infection where people have it and may not have any symptoms at all,” said Sadarangani. Answering this question, he said, will add to the data that the province uses to make decisions such as when schools should be reopened.

Havaei’s study is taking a look at the practices that changed in nursing home care at the start of the pandemic to protect vulnerable residents. Since the changes happened so quickly, Havaei is also investigating their impact on residents, family and staff.

“There are already reports of residents experiencing isolation and loneliness,” said Havaei. “Their family members are not able to come into the facilities and make … face-to-face contact.”

She hopes that investigating the practices can offer insight as to how to better handle safety in care homes in the case of a second wave in a way that also protects the psychological health of everyone involved.

“If you think about the population in these facilities, it’s already a vulnerable population; the senior population,” explained Havaei. “A really big component of this population has some sort of comorbidity or … disability and it would be really important and beneficial to improve how care is being delivered to [them].”

The remaining six projects are all also designed to address and inform decision makers on issues arising from COVID-19.

Dr. Sarka Lisonkova, associate professor in the division of maternal fetal medicine is studying how COVID-19 impacts the vulnerable. Figuring out which communities are most impacted by the virus both physically and socially, as well as connecting trends of past medical histories to deaths, will help identify which people are in need of extra assistance.

Of the many that recover, professor and division head of respiratory medicine Dr. Chris Carlsten observed that there tend to be lingering impacts of COVID-19 after recovery. In order for BC to prepare for long term treatment, Carlsten is studying exactly what those impacts are, particularly those of the lungs.

Immunosuppressive or immunomodulatory agents (IIA), medications used to treat a variety of conditions, are currently being looked at to treat COVID-19. However, these medications also suppress the immune system and there is concern that those prescribed IIAs will have less of a chance of survival if they contract COVID-19. Clinical assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine Dr. Juan Aviña-Zubieta is observing those who take IIAs and have tested positive for COVID-19 to compare how their bodies respond with those not using IIAs.

Another group of potentially at risk individuals are newborns. The SHiNE-BC project, led by Dr. Yuk Joseph Ting of UBC’s department of pediatrics, will observe how the virus affects infants in both the short and long term, as well as how different treatments impact recovery. The study will provide clarity on how to best treat COVID-19 impacted babies moving forward.

By studying a virus’s mutations, scientists can create phylogenetic trees, which predict a virus’s evolution. However, creating these trees is a complicated process and can take weeks to update. This is why Dr. Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, associate professor of statistics, and his team are implementing computational improvements within the current modelling software in order for it to be done in real-time.

Clinical associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine Dr. Naveed Janjua is monitoring compliance with physical distancing protocols in BC in order to determine if its impact for harm reduction related to the virus is being communicated and enforced properly in the province. Janjua plans to monitor physical distancing using surveys and data from companies such as TransLink, Google, Citymapper and Apple.

“[For our project], the main goal is by better understanding the infection rates in the community we can make better informed decisions about what … places should or shouldn’t be opened,” said Sadarangani.

“Hopefully, [this] will mean that we can move things forward in an evidence based way … to give people more confidence that the decisions that are being made are being made based on the data that we have available.”