University of Windsor research will tackle COVID-19 from different angles

The University of Windsors new Stephen and Vicki Adams Welcome Centre, October 2, 2015. (Photo by Mike Vlasveld)

A $500,000 grant will help a team of researchers at the University of Windsor fight the COVID-19 pandemic on multiple fronts.

The money comes from the Canadian Institutes of Health and Research, a federal agency, which recognizes Windsor-Essex could serve as a canary in the coal mine because of its location across the border from the U.S. and its large agriculture industry.

“Windsor-Essex is one of the busiest border crossings between the U.S. and Canada, and is located at the heart of intensive year-round agricultural operations with a high concentration of migrant workers,” said Biochemistry Professor Doctor Yufeng Tong, who is leading the research group.

With thousands of workers arriving each year from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and thousands more crossing the border daily to work in Michigan hospitals, he said the region is particularly susceptible to the introduction of COVID-19 variants.

Part of the study will focus on identifying the transmission of those variants.

However, the project also includes a rapid test for the virus.

Early in the pandemic, Tong partnered with SM Research, a biotech company, to create the test using saliva.

Each week, students on the university campus are tested and the results are released to participants using a cellphone app.

Since people in that age group are less likely to show symptoms, it could be key to controlling transmission of novel variants of COVID-19.

“The asymptomatic young population is of particular concern of the spread of variants and deserves close attention,” said Biomedical Sciences Professor, Lisa Porter, a member of the team.

In addition to tracking the virus, the team is also working on new drugs to treat it. Tong and fellow biochemistry professor Doctor Kenneth Ng are studying key proteins in the virus using computer simulations and lab experiments to find out why some strains are more transmissible than others, and how effective current vaccines are against them.

“Our work will become even more important as new variants continue to show up, especially ones that are found in the samples obtained from the wastewater and saliva testing parts of this project,” said Ng.

For almost a year, researchers at the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research have been heading a province-wide project testing wastewater for signs of the virus. That endeavour has grown to include cities and towns across the province and is used by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit to help track the course of the pandemic.

Finally, psychology professor Doctor Kendall Soucie is studying how people perceive COVID-19 screening and vaccination.

“Our pilot project included a questionnaire that assessed attitudes toward COVID-19 and the testing procedures, fears, and concerns,” she said. “Expanding this survey will help us gather insights to make health messaging and on-site screening procedures more effective.”

The funding will support one year of research.