Home General CoVaRR-Net Quickly assessing how SARS-CoV-2 variants will affect people in Canada and around the world and finding ways to detect and stop their spread
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CoVaRR-Net’s Mandate

CoVaRR-Net, or Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network, is a network of interdisciplinary researchers from institutions across the country created to assist in the Government of Canada’s overall strategy to address the potential threat of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. Our mandate is to coordinate, facilitate, support and accelerate rapid response research throughout Canada.

We aim to create infrastructures, such as a national biobank, a secure data sharing platform, and material sharing agreements, to make it easier and faster for researchers to access the resources they need to study variants in Canada.

The goal: rapidly answer critical and immediate questions regarding variants, such as their increased transmissibility, likelihood to cause severe cases of COVID-19, and resistance to vaccines. The findings from the experts in our network and their teams will provide decision makers in Canada, but also abroad, with guidance regarding drug therapy, vaccine effectiveness, and other public health strategies.

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Preparing for Future Pandemics

CoVaRR-Net is not only focusing on SARS-CoV-2 variants. The current pandemic has revealed challenges and roadblocks in how Canadian researchers share information and physical resources between themselves, as well as in how they collaborate with public health laboratories and industry partners to carry out rapid response research.

CoVaRR-Net believes it is essential to plan for future pandemics, whether they will be caused by viruses or microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. That is why it is currently laying the foundations to evolve into a Pandemic Preparedness Network.

The goal will be to foster close ties, collaborations, and relationships with public health laboratories and industry — because everyone’s contribution is critical during a pandemic.

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This network will act as Canada’s integrated platform for determining how VOCs impact Canadians from diverse communities and demographics and for tracking how SARS-CoV-2 is mutating in real time, while evolving into a future cornerstone for pandemic preparedness in Canada.

Marc-André Langlois, CoVaRR-Net Executive Director

What are Variants?

When viruses infect cells and replicate their genetic material, errors occur. While many of these errors, or genetic mutations, have little effect, some can be harmful to the virus. Others can cause small changes in viral proteins and give viruses new abilities. These abilities can include making the virus more infectious, more resistant to vaccines and therapies, and sometimes making our antibodies or immune systems less effective against these modified viruses. Viruses containing genetic mutations are called variants, and those with a suspected or confirmed advantage are called variants of interest and variants of concern, respectively.

Variants continue to emerge as long as the virus is able to spread to new hosts. Vaccines train our immune system to recognize different parts of the virus before we get infected. Therefore, if mutations change the parts used for this training, vaccines become less effective and need to be updated. This is why variants must be tracked and analyzed continuously.

What are Variants?

When viruses infect cells and replicate their genetic material, errors occur during this process. While many of these errors, or genetic mutations, have little effect, some can be harmful to the virus. Others can cause small changes in viral proteins and give viruses new abilities. These abilities can include making the virus more infectious, more resistant to vaccines and therapies, and sometimes making our antibodies or immune systems less effective against these modified viruses. Viruses containing genetic mutations are called variants, and those with a suspected or confirmed advantage are called variants of interest and variants of concern, respectively.

Variants continue to emerge as long as the virus is able to spread to new hosts. Vaccines train our immune system to recognize different parts of the virus before we get infected. Therefore, if mutations change the parts used for this training, vaccines become less effective and need to be updated. This is why variants must be tracked and analyzed continuously.

Figure 1. What are variants?

Variants of Concern vs. Variants of Interest

Variants of concern (VOCs) are coronaviruses that are confirmed to be more infectious, can potentially cause more severe disease, and may be more resistant to existing vaccines compared to other circulating coronaviruses. CoVaRR-Net is working alongside other organizations in Canada and around the world to investigate VOCs and emerging new variants.

There are currently four VOCs in Canada. The first three are Alpha (B.1.1.7) (originally detected in the United Kingdom), Beta (B.1.351) (first identified in South Africa), and Gamma (P.1) (emerged in Brazil and first reported in Japan). An additional variant has now recently been elevated to VOC status by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is called Delta (B.1.617.2) and was first detected in India and is rapidly spreading to other countries, including Canada.

A variant of interest (VOI) or variant under investigation (VUI) is one that is only “suspected” to either be more contagious than the initial strain, cause more severe disease, or escape the protection offered by vaccines. A variant under investigation can become a variant of concern if more scientific and clinical evidence emerges that it does one or more of those things.

The current VOIs in Canada are the Epsilon (B.1.427/B.1.429) (discovered in California), Eta (B.1.525) (first detected in the United Kingdom and Nigeria), and Iota (B.1.526) (identified in New York City).

Simplified SARS-CoV-2 evolutionary tree

Clade:
A group of genetically similar viruses derived from a common ancestor.

WHO:
The World Health Organization started May 31, 2021 to give Greek letters (e.g., Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta) according to the order of the detection of variants.

PANGO:
Phylogenetic Assignment of Named Global Outbreak, a nomenclature system defining the dynamic nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 lineages.

Nextstrain:
An open-source project that tracks pathogen (bacterium, virus, or other microorganism) evolution in real-time using genomic data (from GISAID).

GISAID:
A global science initiative and primary source that provides open-access to genomic data of influenza viruses and the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

CoVaRR-Net Funded Research

Our Team

CoVaRR-Net brings together some of Canada’s most eminent researchers and experts from various scientific and medical disciplines linked to emerging variants. Our team is structured by themes or “Pillars” that study and analyze different biological, epidemiological, social and societal aspects related to variants and their impacts on all Canadians, with a special focus on Indigenous communities and priority populations. We also have teams organizing shared network resources, promoting health equity and inclusion, and providing public outreach and communications. By connecting this country’s best variant-related research labs, this network ensures a rapid and coordinated response to emerging variants that fuel and sustain the pandemic.

Marc-André Langlois

Marc-André Langlois

Executive Director
Ninan Abraham

Ninan Abraham

Director, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI)
Angela Rasmussen

Angela Rasmussen

Communications Director
Jennifer Gommerman

Jennifer Gommerman

Immunology & Vaccine Protection
Louis Flamand

Louis Flamand

In Vitro & Vivo Characterization
Anne-Claude Gingras

Anne-Claude Gingras

Functional Genomics & Structure-Function of VOCs
Ioannis Ragoussis

Ioannis Ragoussis

Viral Genomics & Sequencing
Jesse Shapiro

Jesse Shapiro

Computational Biology and Modelling
Nazeem Muhajarine

Nazeem Muhajarine

Public Health, Health Systems and Social Policy Impacts
Kimberly Huyser

Kimberly Huyser

Indigenous Engagement, Development, and Research
Melissa Brouwers

Melissa Brouwers

Knowledge Mobilization
Jeremy Grimshaw

Jeremy Grimshaw

Knowledge Mobilization
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