OTTAWA, July 27, 2022 – The COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world due to variants. In Canada, it’s estimated that over 80% of current infections are due to the BA.5 Omicron subvariant, new to Canada this spring. Yet, it remains unclear which variant(s) Canadians will keep facing in the coming months. New variants will continue to affect the global population until more solutions are found to limit transmissions. As this country tackles its 7th wave, the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network (CoVaRR-Net) is investing another $6.9 million to support 15 new research projects focused on better understanding Omicron subvariants and future variants and finding solutions to curb them.
“Despite all the research and health measures deployed since the beginning of the pandemic, we are still dealing with a virus that could soon equal or surpass measles as one of the world’s most infectious viral agents and will continue to evolve until new solutions are developed to stop it,” says Dr. Marc-André Langlois, CoVaRR-Net’s Executive Director and Professor of Molecular Virology and Intrinsic Immunity at the University of Ottawa. “In order to reduce the virus’s spread, we must continue studying different aspects of variants to discover their vulnerabilities. The research projects in which CoVaRR-Net is investing have been carefully selected to answer some key questions to exploit these vulnerabilities and support public health officials in tackling the pandemic,” adds Dr. Langlois.
The 15 projects span a variety of focusses such as studying viral transmission between animals and people; the tracking and modelling of new variant mutations in Canada; the enhanced surveillance of wastewater across the country; the development of new virus surveillance approaches such as monitoring its presence in office buildings and malls; and the social factors that may protect or make Indigenous Peoples more vulnerable to variants.
Other projects aim to:
- Examine the antibody response to vaccination in the saliva of adults versus children to better understand how COVID-19 vaccines provide protection in the mouth and airways and determine whether children are less likely to have symptoms due to a stronger antibody response in the mucosa. This will inform the development of mucosal vaccines. The project will also investigate whether people who were vaccinated and then caught Omicron can benefit from further vaccine doses and when.
- Determine whether mutations in SARS-CoV-2 genes confer an immune escape potential for emerging variants of concern. This analysis will help determine whether mutations affect infection-acquired or vaccination-induced antibodies or cellular immunity.
- Determine which mutations in SARS-CoV-2 genes cause severe disease and assess whether nucleoprotein-based vaccines could enhance protection against a broad spectrum of variants. This could lead to the development of a multivalent vaccine prototype to act more effectively against current and future variants.
- Analyze viral genomics and sequencing data from wastewater and clinical samples (obtained from people who test positive) to support public health surveillance and act as an early detection system for emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. Integrating data from these two complementary screening methods will also support evidence-based public health strategies to rapidly contain outbreaks and target vaccination efforts geographically.
- Study the potential for variants to develop antiviral resistance, meaning they would no longer respond to current medicines. The researchers seek to understand how current antivirals can be improved to help people recover from COVID-19 faster.
CoVaRR-Net’s investments also include laying the groundwork for evolving into an academic pandemic preparedness network and making it easier and faster for researchers to get what they need to study variants in Canada. Mechanisms being created include a SARS-CoV-2 biobank as well as a data platform to facilitate sharing of resources; a network-wide sharing agreement to facilitate the lawful transfer of data and samples between laboratories across Canada; a Wastewater Surveillance Group, which brings together Canadian wastewater and environment investigators from universities across Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada/National Microbiology Laboratory, and provincial wastewater surveillance programs; and the creation of the Canadian Consortium of Academic Biosafety Level 3 (CCABL3) Laboratories, which aims to facilitate and expedite research on Risk Group 3 pathogens by Canadian scientists, industry, and public health laboratories.
The Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network (CoVaRR-Net) was created with a $9 million investment by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research at the end of March 2021 as part of the Government of Canada’s Variants of Concern Strategy. It was allocated another $9 million in 2022. It is a network of interdisciplinary researchers from institutions across the country created to address the potential threat of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. Its mandate is to coordinate, facilitate, and accelerate rapid response research throughout Canada regarding variants, such as their increased transmissibility, likelihood to cause severe cases of COVID-19, and resistance to vaccines. The Network collaborates with federal and provincial public health decisionmakers and laboratories, as well as other national and international bodies in an effort to reduce virus transmission and keep Canadians safe. The Network is laying the foundations to evolve into an academic pandemic preparedness network that will foster close ties, collaborations, and relationships with public health laboratories, biomanufacturing facilities and hubs, and industry – because everyone’s contribution is critical during a pandemic.
 Estimate from CoVaRR-Net’s Pillar 6, Computational Biology & Modelling