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

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged that Friday would be one year since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the province. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Three more Red Deer COVID-19 deaths, 331 active cases in Alberta

Red Deer is down to 362 active cases of the virus

The remains of Terry Bearden’s property before a demolition crew came in to remove debris. (Photo submitted)
Rimbey arson case may have a lead thanks to reward offered by owner

Anonymous tip alleges the fire was set by three local males

hands
The call is out in Rimbey to sign on with a group that is all about building connections

‘Already, we are building a network where we can rely on each other and help each other out’

Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says Albertans need to keep making safe choices to start bending the curve back down. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
One new COVID-19 death in Red Deer, 257 additional cases province-wide

Red Deer sits at 459 active cases of the virus

A health-care worker looks at a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Palais de Congress site as Quebec begins mass vaccinations based on age across the province, Monday, March 1, 2021 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Nearly 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses arriving in Canada this week: Anand

Anita Anand says she’s received assurances from the vaccine manufacturer

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Backcountry skiers are dwarfed by the mountains as they make their way along a mountain ridge near McGillivray Pass Lodge located in the southern Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. Avalanche Canada has issued a special warning to people who use the backcountry in the mountains of western Alberta and eastern British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Avalanche Canada special warning for mountains in western Alberta, eastern B.C.

Avalanche Canada also says everyone in a backcountry party needs essential rescue gear

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Federal panel recommends 4-month gap between COVID vaccine doses due to limited supply

The recommendation applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada

FILE - Dolly Parton arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Grammy-winning singer, actor and humanitarian posted a video on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, of her singing just before getting her COVID-19 vaccine shot. Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee for coronavirus research. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
‘Vaccine, vaccine’: Dolly sings ‘Jolene’ rewrite before shot

The Grammy-winning legend turned 75 this year

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland speaks about the Fiscal update during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday November 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
COVID-19: Wage and rent subsidies, lockdown support to be extended until June

Chrystia Freeland says now is not time to lower levels of support

Many rural seniors are having to travel a long way to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Stettler residents are being told to go to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose. (Black Press file photo).
Rural central Alberta seniors have to travel far to get vaccines

Stettler residents are being directed to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose clinics

Samantha Sharpe, 25, was stabbed to death at Sunchild First Nation on Dec. 12, 2018. Chelsey Lagrelle was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for manslaughter in a Red Deer courtroom on Tuesday. Photo contributed
Central Alberta woman sentenced to 4 1/2 years for stabbing friend to death in 2018

Chelsey Lagrelle earlier pleaded guilty to stabbing Samantha Sharpe during argument

Calgary police say they received 80 hate crime complaints between January and November 2020. (Pixabay)
‘Racism is a real problem:’ Muslim women fearful following attacks in Edmonton

So far in 2021, three of seven hate-crime-related investigations have involved Somali-Muslim women

Most Read