null Tracking the emerging COVID-19 variants of concern in Canada
RI-MUHC researcher Ciriaco Piccirillo takes a leading role in Canada’s new Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network
Excerpt from an article by Diana Kwon
Source: Health E-News. In February the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) put out a call for proposals for initiatives that would address the threat of SARS-CoV-2 variants to public health. This led to the establishment of the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network (CoVaRR-Net), an effort to coordinate and consolidate research efforts across the country to rapidly detect, monitor and assess newly emerging variants and provide rapid guidance for policymakers.
One area of research covered by CoVaRR-Net involves investigating the effects of the variants on immune responses, which is crucial for understanding whether variants will be able to evade the effects of vaccines. Ciriaco Piccirillo, PhD, a senior scientist at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) and professor in McGill’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, is overseeing national efforts to understand how variants influence the response of T cells—a type of immune cell that is essential for instructing the production of antibodies, which the body uses to pin down and attack foreign invaders.
A pipeline of expertise
Piccirillo and his colleagues are setting up a pipeline that will include experts who will be able to pinpoint which components of the virus a given mutation affects and develop tests that can determine whether T cells can effectively respond to those changes. Once these data are obtained, Piccirillo explains, they will be used to help those involved in developing vaccines.
“Our job is to make sure that we are capable of influencing public health authorities with real-time information.”
Currently, a key focus of the network is B.1.617, a variant that has spread rapidly in India, where the pandemic is causing widespread devastation. The variant harbours two mutations that preliminary research suggests increase the virus’s transmissibility and ability to circumvent the immune response. A handful of cases of B.1.617, labelled a “variant of interest” by such authorities as the World Health Organization, have been documented in Canada. “Before these very few cases take over, we would like to be proactive and understand exactly how this variant is impacting immune responses and vaccine efficacy,” Piccirillo says. “Our job is to make sure that we are capable of influencing public health authorities with real-time information.”
Foiling the development of variants
In addition to monitoring variants as they emerge, another concern of the network is to identify the conditions that lead to the development of such variants. By determining whether factors such as the age, health or immune status of an infected individual influence the chances that a problematic mutation will arise or propagate, researchers may be able to prevent them developing in the first place. CoVaRR-Net is also involved in many other aspects of the pandemic response, such as monitoring the impact of the variants on Indigenous communities and other ethnic minority groups across Canada.
“Our ultimate goal is to come up with concrete nuggets of information that are sufficiently informative to public health officials, to tell them whether a given variant is of true societal interest in the near future,” Piccirillo says. “Time is truly of the essence here.”
Learn more about McGill participation in CoVaRR-Net.
May 19, 2021