An AbCellera Biologics Inc. scientist pipettes cell culture reagents in a biosafety cabinet at an AbCellera laboratory in this undated handout photo. As researchers race to develop a vaccine, the head of a Vancouver biotech company says another valuable shield against COVID-19 could work better and buy time in the interim. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, AbCellera Biologics Inc.

An AbCellera Biologics Inc. scientist pipettes cell culture reagents in a biosafety cabinet at an AbCellera laboratory in this undated handout photo. As researchers race to develop a vaccine, the head of a Vancouver biotech company says another valuable shield against COVID-19 could work better and buy time in the interim. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, AbCellera Biologics Inc.

Serological surveys to look for COVID-19 immunity in Canadian population

It’s not yet known how much immunity antibodies can offer

Canada’s top doctor says too little is known to consider using a newly approved serology test to identify individuals who could be immune to COVID-19 and allow those people to return to work or gather in public.

Instead, Theresa Tam said Wednesday that the new LIAISON test will be used more broadly to look for immunity in the Canadian population, noting questions persist about the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies and what protections they offer.

Tam said an immunity task force had been formed to examine what protection from reinfection exists among those who have recovered from COVID-19.

“Now that you have the first test, we’re hoping to see rapid implementation of the actual population surveys, both general and those focusing on specific communities, geographies, (and) occupational groups,” said Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.

“They’re working as fast as they can and hopefully this will be quite rapid in terms of its rollout.”

The comments came a day after Health Canada said it had authorized the first serological test to detect antibodies specific to the virus that causes COVID-19.

READ MORE: Health Canada approves serological test to detect COVID-19

The federal agency said Tuesday that at least one million Canadian blood samples will be collected and tested over the next two years to track the virus in the general population and in specific groups at greater risk of having been infected, including health-care workers and seniors.

Even if a test has been authorized, Tam said Health Canada must monitor its ability to perform in real-life applications.

“How specific are they? Can they actually detect the specific COVID-19 antibodies or not?” said Tam.

“All of that remains to be seen which just means that we need to evaluate and monitor these tests as carefully as we can.”

Unlike the current PCR diagnostic tests that tell us where COVID-19 is presently, serology tests reveal if someone has been infected in the past and has developed antibodies to the virus.

Experts say that can give us a better sense of how prevalent infection has been and how to further prevent COVID-19 spread — information that is critical as various regions of the country begin to reopen.

Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health noted Wednesday that serology tests could provide good information on the role asymptomatic people play in community spread.

“Nationally, there is discussion about doing a sero-survey. So you do a sample of people across the country, big enough that you can get representative numbers from each of the provinces and territories. Through that, you get a sense of how many people have been actually immune from wave one, and then we could match that up with a number of known cases we have,” said Dr. Robert Strang.

“And the difference would give us an estimation of the number of people that weren’t recognized — either they were asymptomatic or never came forward for testing.”

At the other end of the country, B.C.’s provincial health officer has already invited residents there to volunteer for a serology blood testing study.

Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the study Tuesday, along with a survey to gather information about how people have been affected by COVID-19 measures.

READ MORE: B.C. begins broad COVID-19 survey, with option for antibody testing

Patrick Saunders-Hastings, an epidemiologist and consultant with the management consulting firm Gevity Consulting Inc., said one issue with serological tests in general has been their reliability.

He agreed that the goal should be to try to determine on a broad scale who has antibodies that may protect them from the coronavirus rather than aim for individual immunity passports.

“Serological testing performance is quite variable,” said Saunders-Hastings, director of life sciences and environmental health at the firm.

“And when we do get down to the individual levels some of the sort of false positives and false negatives can be quite problematic.”

He added that serology should be used as a complement to ongoing clinical diagnostic testing, which would identify current infections.

Also unknown: the amount of antibodies needed to confer full immunity and how long immunity lasts.

Tam said it was too early to discuss the possibility of so-called immunity passports, which the World Health Organization has cautioned against.

“We really we need more information.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

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

Just Posted

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry wears shoes designed in her honour, as she views her image at the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on July 3, 2020. (Darryl Dyck - The Canadian Press)
Celebrating Vernon women in leadership this International Women’s Day

Pandemic highlights women excelling in critical response roles

Mya Kondor, owner and trainer of Canines and Co. in Kelowna. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
VIDEO: Kelowna dog school offers puppy socialization classes amid COVID-19

Canines and Co. has adapted to the pandemic to provide training essential to puppies’ development

Providing seniors with tablets in order to stay connected is just one of the services offered by the Lake Country Health Planning Society. (Literacy Alliance of the Shuswap Society photo)
Support helps Lake Country society reduce COVID impacts on mental health

District grants funding to Health Planning Society

Elementary students from Vernon Christian School are looking to spread some cheer through their Carnation for Seniors campaign. (VCS - Contributed)
Vernon students spread cheer through carnations

Vernon Christian School hosting carnation campaign to bring joy to seniors in town

Butter and sourdough bread is shown at a house in Vernon, B.C. on Wednesday, February 24, 2021. A Quebec dairy farmers’ group is calling on milk producers to stop feeding palm oil or its derivatives to livestock as controversy churns over how these supplements affect the consistency of butter. (THE CANADIAN PRESS - Jesse Johnston)
Poll: Care to spread your feelings on butter?

Reports of hard butter have rattled the Canadian dairy industry

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Chase RCMP arrest intoxicated man running into highway traffic

The man was wanted on several warrents in Alberta; was held overnight but released

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Kara Sorensen, diagnosed with lung cancer in July, says it’s important for people to view her as healthy and vibrant, rather than sick. (Photo courtesy of Karen Sorensen)
B.C. woman must seek treatment overseas for inoperable lung cancer

Fundraising page launched on Karen Sorensen’s behalf, with a goal of $250,000

Most Read