The University of Toronto and affiliated institutions will receive almost $6 million for research projects related to the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), with $2.7 million to campus-based researchers, while $3.13 million will go to U of T researchers at affiliated hospitals – as part of a $27 million federal investment in research related to the global outbreak.

As of March 8, 2020, 62 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Canada. The Public Health Agency of Canada has assessed the public health risk associated with COVID-19 as low for Canada. Public health risk is continually reassessed as new information becomes available. The risk to Canadian travellers abroad is generally low but varies depending on the destination.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide has surpassed 100,000, with cases reported on every continent except Antarctica. The virus has claimed more than 2,500 lives, predominantly in China. The rapid onset and spread of this severe acute respiratory virus is proving to be a challenge for public health officials.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and policymakers are searching for an action plan to contain the spread of this virus as quickly as possible. A key component of how the disease could be spreading is the environment. Although it’s not yet known how important environmental factors are in the spread of this virus, they have been a key component in other disease outbreaks.

The focus of the research at U of T includes the development of rapid and low-cost diagnostics, antiviral compounds and statistical models to forecast disease transmission. Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives, says U of T researchers have the expertise and experience to make a major contribution to scientists’ understanding of the coronavirus and how to deal with it.

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“U of T and its partners are home to many leading experts in public health, medicine, biology and other fields that can collectively advance our knowledge of this new illness and help mitigate its impact,” says Goel, who was the founding head of Public Health Ontario. “Many of these research projects engage those who are also on the front-lines of our health system, helping to ensure that the research will be relevant and applied immediately and also inform the management of future infectious disease outbreaks.”

One of the newly funded projects involves U of T researchers Allison McGeer and Samira Mubareka and aims to provide a better picture of how the virus spreads. Their team plans to collect data to shed light on how long a patient with the virus is infectious, and how the virus spreads to surfaces and through the air.

“The importance is with risk management and mitigation,” Mubareka told U of T News. She added that removing some of the uncertainty around how the virus spreads can help hospitals make better use of their resources. The research team also plans to systematically collect samples containing the virus, serum and immune system cells to create a bio-bank that can be shared with researchers working on vaccines.

In total, 47 research teams across the country have received funding through several agencies and non-profits: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canada Research Coordinating Committee, the International Development Research Centre and Genome Canada.

Environmental factors 

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Currently research efforts are largely focused on human-to-human transmission, potential animal-to-human links, and ways to treat those already infected. To ultimately contain the virus, though, more and more experts are calling on more research with regard to environmental factors – including water, soil, air, and man-made surfaces.

Certain environments serve as reservoirs of pathogens, and if people come into contact with the environment, such as a tainted work surface or pool of water, they can become infected by the pathogen. It’s therefore crucial to consider the environment when it comes to tackling virus outbreaks. Environmental factors – such as temperature, presence of organic matter and ultraviolet light from the sun – significantly affect their ability to survive.

Akebe Luther King Abia, a research scientist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is carrying out environmental microbiology research and looking at how pathogens survive in the environment. According to Abia, in aquatic environments, most bacterial pathogens, such as salmonella and E. coli, survive longer in sediment than in the water column. The sediment protects them from ultraviolet light and predation from other organisms and provides them with more nutrients. This has also been shown with viruses.

“The conditions that determine how long a virus can survive in the environment depend on the specific virus,” says Abia. “Generally, when places are very hot and there’s a lot of moisture in the air, viruses – including some members of the coronavirus family – don’t survive very well. They prefer lower temperatures, around 4℃, and less humidity.”

He warns that some members of the coronavirus family can survive outside of the human body for up to a week on surfaces such as metal, glass, paper, aluminium, and plastic.

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The WHO estimates that US$675-million is needed to develop preparedness plans and ensure a global response to the new coronavirus with a focus on human-to-human and animal-to-human transmissions. Environmental experts such as Abia are advising that the strategy should also take into account the survival of such viruses in the environment.

In the meantime experts recommend protective measures such as cleaning frequently touched surfaces (like walls, windows, toilets and baths) with bleach and ethanol. Clothes and other textiles should be washed with hot water and detergents. In places prone to contamination, such as hospitals, cleaners should wear personal protective equipment.

For further information on the research at U of T, click here.

For further information from the Public Health Agency of Canada, click here.

Featured image from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other image from the Government of Canada: COVID-19.



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