When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared one year ago, University of Guelph researchers quickly responded by finding ways of harnessing innovations and expertise to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus and mitigate the global impact.
Researchers have repurposed innovations, conducted cutting-edge research and provided their expertise to provincial, national and global pandemic efforts.
Confronting the virus was at the same time one of the University’s greatest challenges and one of its greatest moments, said Dr. Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research).
“We recognized how vitally important our effort would be, how life-saving it could be,” he said. “The faster we could get projects up and running, the better it would be for our world. What we’ve achieved is truly remarkable.”
Numerous U of G projects have attracted support from federal funding agencies, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Researchers have received provincial support through the Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund and the Ontario Together Fund. Industry partners and non-profit organizations alike have made significant investments in U of G research and innovations developed in response to the pandemic.
The University launched the COVID-19 Research Development and Catalyst Fund, which awarded nearly $700,000 to researchers for 51 projects involving faculty, staff and students from all the University’s colleges. Each project received up to $10,000, with matching support from departments, colleges and private donors.
“We knew we had the ingenuity and expertise to help, and wanted to do whatever we could to contribute to the global response to the pandemic,” said Campbell. Among numerous examples, he added, “we saw world-leading researchers pivoting their expertise toward the development of a vaccine and innovation in food sanitization repurposed to clean personal protective equipment used in health care.”
Under its Creating in a Time of Coronavirus fund, the University gave a total of $70,000 to nine projects for pandemic-related creative works and to build connections between artists and their audiences and communities.
Today, well over 100 U of G researchers have contributed their expertise to responding to the pandemic. Below are just a few examples:
Searching for a Vaccine
U of G researchers received $230,000 from the province’s Ontario Together Fund to develop potential COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Byram Bridle, Dr. Sarah Wootton and Dr. Leo Susta in the Department of Pathobiology quickly developed a vaccine platform, adapted from their research into using vaccines as cancer therapies.
The technology uses a proven testing platform of viruses already used to develop cancer vaccines. By using live vectors to deliver the vaccine directly into cells, the approach ensures an appropriate immune response.
The team expects a viable vaccine based on the technology to be ready for Health Canada approval in 2021.
SARS-CoV-2 in Pets
In early 2020, some animals were found to be infected with COVID-19, and pathobiology professors Dr. Scott Weese and Dr. Dorothee Bienzle set out to understand why. In April, they embarked on a first-of-its-kind study to examine what risk COVID-19 in humans poses to pets and why some animals become infected while others do not.
The researchers recruited pet owners with COVID-10 symptoms or a positive test for the disease and tested their animals for the virus. They determined transmission of the virus to pets is not uncommon and presented their findings to the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Disease Conference on Coronavirus Disease.
The Team also discovered the first dog in Canada with an active COVID-19 infection.
Wastewater and Early Detection of SARS-CoV-2
In October 2020, Dr. Lawrence Goodridge, professor in the Department of Food Science, and Dr. Ed McBean, professor in the School of Engineering, began a research project on the University campus to detect COVID-19 in residence wastewater.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus can be shed in human feces. Higher levels of the virus in wastewater are an early warning sign of a potential outbreak. The researchers aim to develop a wastewater test for early detection and prevention on Canadian campuses.
Modelling the Spread of COVID-19
Dr. Amy Greer, an infectious disease modelling expert in the Department of Population Medicine, began tracking the spread of the new virus early in the pandemic. Her lab group created a website that illustrates the virus’s spread across Canada (COVID-19 in Canada) by monitoring COVID-19 cases and deaths and tracking changes in case numbers.
Greer contributed to several published research papers on COVID-19 transmission and mitigation strategies that appeared in Annals of Internal Medicine, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Canadian Journal of Public Health and other publications.
She also worked on other pandemic-related projects, including a $300,000 federally funded effort to forecast the near-term course of the COVID-19 epidemic and a project that modelled the spread of the virus based on relaxing physical distancing measures in Ontario.
Public Trust and Vaccines
Since the pandemic began, Dr. Maya Goldenberg, a professor in the Department of Philosophy, has provided expertise to media and academic journals about vaccine hesitancy and public trust in government. Goldenberg argues building trust in public institutions and health providers is key to any successful public health campaign.
Her newly released book Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science, discusses how vaccine controversies reflect public mistrust of scientific institutions and government bodies rather than a misunderstanding of science.
Sanitization of PPE
In response to the demand for personal protective equipment for health-care workers, Dr. Keith Warriner and post-doc Mahdiyeh Hasani, Department of Food Science, repurposed a technology initially developed to sanitize produce and slow decomposition to rid gowns and masks of SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens.
The technology, originally funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, uses ultraviolet light, hydrogen peroxide and ozone to kill pathogens. The units blow ozone through batches of gowns and masks and are being used in hospitals across Canada.
Warriner has partnered with Clean Works Corp. and Mohawk Medbury Corp. on the project.
The Pandemic and Artistic Innovations
More than 150 artists from more than 20 countries participated in U of G’s successful IF 2020: Improvisation Festival. Held on Aug. 7, the 24-hour event garnered some 2,500 viewers worldwide. Performances took place in a range of settings, from studios and stages to small rooms and outdoor spaces.
Festival director Dr. Ajay Heble, a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies and director of U of G’s International Institute of Critical Studies and Improvisation (IICSI), organized the “global community” event at a time when many concerts, theatre performances and arts and music events had been cancelled.
Agri-Food and COVID-19
The University’s food and agriculture experts were significant contributors to a special edition of the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, focused on challenges faced by the Canadian agri-food industry during the pandemic and what the future holds.
Dr. Alan Ker, professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, co-edited the edition and seven of the 18 articles were written by U of G experts. Drs. Brady Deaton, John Cranfield, Getu Hailu, Alfons Weersink and Mike von Massow examined the pandemic’s effects on the pork, beef, grain and fresh produce industries.
They also examined how pandemic shutdowns have affected the food service, retail and processing industries, food security, the food supply chain and labour issues.
The Pandemic and Vulnerable Populations
The pandemic has disproportionately impacted vulnerable populations worldwide, including women and girls with disabilities. Dr. Deborah Stienstra, Department of Political Science, is leading a $2.5-million, federally funded research project to increase the global inclusion of women and girls with a range of physical, mental health, intellectual and other disabilities.
The seven-year project is initially focused on the effects of the current pandemic on this largest minority of women in Canada and around the world. It will bring together academics, agencies and governments in Canada, Haiti, South Africa and Vietnam to work with policy makers.
Impact of the Pandemic on the Workforce
Dr. Nita Chhinzer, a professor in the Department of Management, has consulted widely with media on labour force topics during the pandemic, including the challenges of the massive work-from-home shift, the ethics of layoffs through Zoom and paid sick days.
Chhinzer, who has been appointed as advisory board member for Canadian HR Reporter, has also written commentaries for national publications on how the pandemic has impacted the workforce.
To learn about other U of G research projects related to the pandemic, visit the Office of Research website.