A new blood study done on unsuspecting patients who attended LifeLabs in March or May has revealed that less than one percent of Greater Vancouver residents had been infected with COVID-19.

The study is being referred to as the first in Canada to provide evidence of coronavirus prevalence/antibodies in the general population. What the authors of the study done by UBC, the BC Centre for Disease Control, LifeLabs, and public health experts like Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry do not reveal in their yet-to-be-peer-reviewed study is what had to happen in order for them to even launch the study.

Dr. Eleni Galanis said in an interview that for several years, private labs have not allowed B.C. researchers to “re-purpose” blood samples from patients for “other purposes” including studies. The practice was halted when a patient complained after discovering their blood had been used for research without their explicit consent.

So researchers asked Dr. Henry to allow for an exemption and she granted it, Galanis said, because she recognized it was “important work.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry

Researchers have no way of knowing whose blood was used since every sample that was analyzed for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies was anonymous. Researchers essentially got the leftovers of blood specimens from 1,754 individuals after the lab used what they needed.

Another interesting aspect to the study is that patients in the March time period were likely going to labs for more routine lab work while patients in May, going for lab tests during a pandemic, probably had more serious concerns since physicians’ offices have been closed to all but the most pressing complaints. And many people avoided seeking medical care in the first months of the pandemic.

In the same interview, I asked Galanis about how COVID cases are counted in more unusual circumstances than when an individual has symptoms and seeks testing. For instance, if a patient rushed to hospital after a car accident, or for any other non-COVID related cause, then tests positive for COVID after their admission, is that considered a COVID case? Yes.

And if an asymptomatic individual learns they have COVID because of contact tracing, they are also added to the COVID counts. But if a patient with many complex medical problems (co-morbidities) along with COVID dies, is their death a COVID death or attributable to something else?

That is a trickier scenario and as it turns out, a timely consideration since public health experts are now working with Vital Statistics to determine how such deaths should be classified.

The exercise involves taking a close look at the cause of death information physicians have put on death certificates to check for discrepancies that may tilt the cause of death away – or even towards – COVID after reviews are done.

“We’re in the midst of this reconciliation process,” she said, noting that some patients whose deaths were attributed to COVID had multiple underlying diseases like diabetes and heart or lung disease. “These are difficult cases to resolve,” she said. But for the purposes of statistical data, it’s an important exercise.