Mind the (data) gap: Filling in the blanks during a pandemic

Dr. Allison McGeer

When any virus makes people sick, we tend to ask the same questions: How contagious is it? How does one person infect another? And for how long could they spread it to others? Researchers have worked out the answers to these questions for a lot of well-known viruses, but SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, is new on the scene. This means that we need quality, reliable information about how the virus spreads—information that Dr. Allison McGeer, senior clinician-scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Sinai Health, is determined to provide.

The spark for Dr. McGeer's approach came out of her experience living through the SARS and H1N1 crises and seeing which pieces of information were needed but not easy to obtain without pre-planning, such as how patients and their immune response fared in the long-term.

"We're trying to minimize those data gaps this time," she explains, emphasizing the need to consider which gaps other research groups will be taking on immediately and which ones remain open. "We looked at our expertise in Toronto and Vancouver and determined where we best fit. We really want to leverage what we have in Canada to serve others."

Dr. McGeer and her team—which includes virologists, epidemiologists, and an infectious disease immunologist—are delving deeply into the details of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be passed from one person to another. This involves investigating how much virus COVID-19 patients "shed" into the environment and air around them and how long the process continues. Shedding virus particles may be an unpleasant mental image, but it's an important research question because a better understanding of how far these virus particles can travel when a patient coughs, sneezes, speaks, or simply breathes—and knowing the size of those particles when they're on the move—all paints a clearer picture about the risks posed to others. It is with this information in hand (and the data to back it up) that public health officials can confidently put appropriate mitigation strategies in place. Similarly, we need to know where those shed virus particles turn up, particularly from patients who have been hospitalized. By studying which surfaces of a hospital room become the most contaminated, Dr. McGeer's team is also providing important data to establish effective and efficient ways to clean rooms to avoid further infection.

In addition to studying how exactly the virus can be passed to others (i.e, the transmission dynamics), Dr. McGeer's team is also working to support the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines, and treatments. Her team is asking COVID-19 patients to consider allowing the study to take samples over time to measure the antibodies their immune systems are producing to fight the illness. Understanding how much patients produce, what differences exist between patients, and what amounts provide protection against re-infection is crucial to help with vaccine development research. And while her team is not pursuing the development of a vaccine or treatment as part of their work, they are sharing their data and samples with research teams and labs across the country.

"The team has been absolutely stellar," Dr. McGeer says, noting that she even has some retired staff who have come back to lend a hand during this chaotic time. When it comes to conducting research during a pandemic, "everybody knows what we have to do and where we need to go, and everyone is on board."

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