A model of the COVID-19 virus displayed at the National Institutes of Health, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, in Bethesda, Md. AP/Evan Vucci

A model of the COVID-19 virus displayed at the National Institutes of Health, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, in Bethesda, Md. AP/Evan Vucci

Here are 5 projects by companies tackling COVID-19 to watch in Canada

Provinces are sequencing COVID-positive samples at different rates for an average of about five per cent

It’s been a little more than a year since scientists and biotech companies around the world pivoted to understanding, treating and preventing COVID-19. Here are five projects to watch led by experts in Canada:

CanCOGeN

Led by Genome Canada, the Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network aims to identify, understand and track faster spreading variants, including those first found in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. Tracking variants involves targeted and some random genomic sequencing of COVID-positive samples to determine if there’s a change in the virus’s genetic blueprint. The network’s executive director, Dr. Catalina Lopez-Correa, said the variants have spurred scientists to track changes to the virus at a speed and scale never seen before.

“Genomic epidemiology is now at the centre of our strategy to understand and control the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

The provinces are sequencing COVID-positive samples at different rates for an average of about five per cent across the country, she said. A new federal strategy focused on variants of concern is set to increase data sharing among researchers.

APN01

Data is expected soon from the phase two clinical trial for APN01, a treatment candidate for COVID-19 developed after the outbreak of SARS in 2002. Dr. Josef Penninger, the director of the University of British Columbia’s Life Sciences Institute, was working in Toronto at the time and helped pinpoint the key receptor by which SARS entered and began to replicate in human cells. It turns out the enzyme ACE2 is also the gateway into cells for the new coronavirus, said Penninger, who co-founded Apeiron Biologics.

The Austrian biotech company is now developing APN01 as a “soluble ACE2” therapy or drug to treat COVID-19 patients. It has “dual action,” Penninger said in a news release last fall, meaning it can both block the virus and also protect the lung, blood vessels or heart from injury. In September last year, the Lancet’s peer-reviewed respiratory medicine journal published a case report describing “significant clinical improvement” after APN01 was administered to a patient suffering from severe COVID-19.

Peptide possibilities

At the University of Regina, biochemist Mohan Babu is leading a team of researchers across Canada exploring how peptides – short chains of amino acids that make up proteins – could play a role in both diagnosing and treating COVID-19. They’re working to identify a peptide sequence that points to the illness in asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic and symptomatic patients, Babu explained. Their goal is to lay the foundation for a low-cost rapid test using saliva instead of the standard nasal swab and molecular (PCR) test.

“Those peptide signatures that are highly abundant in your saliva (are) going to be your diagnostic kit,” he said, adding the peptides are more stable and don’t degrade as quickly as the genetic material used in other tests.

On the treatment side, Babu said his team aims to “hijack” the virus using antiviral peptides that block it from entering and replicating inside human cells. They’re using a tiny part of the virus’s own sequence, coaxing it to bind to the ACE2 receptor, he said, while the remainder of the peptide sequence is randomized and the virus’s gateway into cells should wind up destroyed.

The researchers have so far identified four antiviral peptides that appear to inhibit the virus and they’re starting to test against several variants, said Babu. The results of their work have yet to pass through a peer-review process. Babu is receiving more than $900,000 in federal funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for his research on COVID-19.

Blood biomarkers

Immunologists at Dalhousie University in Halifax are working with critical care specialists in Spain to examine key “biomarkers” in the blood of COVID-19 patients, which could help predict the severity of the illness. For a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Critical Care, they tested 250 patients with varying degrees of illness for ribonucleic acid or RNA – the virus’s “genetic blueprint” – and found 78 per cent of those who were severely ill had higher amounts of viral RNA than mild cases.

“We now have an extremely reliable indicator for identifying severe COVID-19 patients who require critical care and should be admitted to the ICU, which will help intensive care unit doctors prioritize severely ill patients,” said David Kelvin, Canada research chair at Dalhousie’s microbiology and immunology department, in a December statement.

The team also linked viral RNA to dysfunctional immune response among COVID-19 patients and they’re now examining how new variants of the virus affect host immunity compared with the first wave of the pandemic, he said. Their work is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Wastewater testing

Testing for COVID-19 in raw wastewater is scaling up in several provinces, including Ontario, B.C. and Nova Scotia. Gail Krantzberg, a professor in the engineering department at Hamilton’s McMaster University, said COVID-19 is “absolutely detectable” in many of the southern Ontario municipalities participating in the project.

A network of researchers at different universities is also working to make the testing more sensitive to detecting the virus. They recently had a sample and couldn’t detect it, but got a signal after refining their methods, said Krantzberg, adding the virus found in wastewater is “deactivated” and no longer live.

The researchers hope to use wastewater to sound the alarm about potential clusters in real time, before new individual cases are found, she said.

“People who are asymptomatic may not get tested. They’re walking around, they’re sick (and) nobody knows, even though they’re excreting (the virus).”

They should soon be able to deliver test results to health officials three times a week within 24 hours of sampling, said Krantzberg.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Vanderhoof municipal office sign on Burrard Avenue. (Aman Parhar/Omineca Express)
Vanderhoof council discuss requests from NWRI, airport, BC Wildfire

District of Vanderhoof held their regular public meeting of council on April… Continue reading

The property on which a residential school (pictured) that was torn down years ago in Lower Post is to be the location of a cultural centre. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre photo)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

To send in Letters to the Editor, email aman.parhar@ominecaexpress.com
Letter: Increased aggression towards staff at Omineca Medical clinic

Dr. Davy Dhillon writes letter on behalf of the clinic

Basin Snow Water Index map for Apr. 1, 2021. (BC River Forecast Centre photo/Lakes District News)
Snowpack above normal for Upper Fraser West basin

Snowpack assessments for early April reveals above normal levels for northwestern British… Continue reading

Four young women prepare to model Magic Wand dresses at a fashion show. Magic Wand provides grad dresses and tuxedos for a nominal fee. (Submitted File Photo)
Nominations available for Cindrella Dreams Program in Vanderhoof

New organizer excited to help graduates with formal wear

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

The father of Aaliyah Rosa planted a tree and laid a plaque in her memory in 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Final witness will extend Langley child murder trial into May or June

Lengthy trial began last autumn with COVID and other factors forcing it to take longer than expected

The corner of 96th Avenue and Glover Road in Fort Langley now has traffic signals, and new “touchless” signal activation buttons. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Busy Fort Langley intersection gets ‘touchless’ crosswalk signals

The new traffic light started operation in April

A crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

Norm Scott, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch # 91, is disappointed the Legion does not qualify for COVID financial assistance from the provincial government. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C.’s pandemic aid package passing Legion branches by

Federal non-profit status stymies provincial assistance eligibility

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller said it would be “very challenging and not very safe” for him and his teammates to play as scheduled on Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Canucks’ return to ice postponed again after players voice COVID health concerns

Friday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers was called off after the team met virtually with the NHLPA

B.C. Attorney General David Eby, Minister Responsible for Housing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. announces $2B for affordable, middle-income family home projects

HousingHub financing to encourage more developers, groups – with low-interest loans – to build affordable homes

Most Read