Blood samples from residents and staff of long term care (LTC) facilities will provide precious clues into how the immune system reacts to both COVID-19 infections and vaccinations.

Vancouver researchers at Providence Health Care, Simon Fraser University, UBC and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS have been granted over $1 million from the federal government to conduct and analyze blood draws from residents and staff of LTC facilities before and after vaccinations. That will allow experts to learn how to understand more about immunity so they can learn how to protect individuals who live and work in the facilities from future outbreaks. Healthcare workers in acute care facilities will also be included in the blood analysis research.

No one knows for sure yet how long immunity to COVID-19 will endure after vaccinations and/or infections. Will we require shots on an annual basis as is the case for protection from influenza? Perhaps, especially the elderly with less robust immune systems.

Principal investigator Dr. Marc Romney said in an interview that hundreds of blood samples have already been collected – including from individuals who died at Holy Family Hospital during an outbreak last year. Their blood has been banked as will all other samples drawn from study participants who will be asked for at least four specimens over a one-year period, including before vaccination, a month after and then again after their second vaccine doses. (Blood samples from deceased individuals will obviously not be useful for post-vaccination research).

The durability of the immune system response will be evidenced by various components including antibodies, T-cells, B-cells and cytokines.

Dr. Romney, the clinical associate professor at UBC and medical leader for medical microbiology and virology at St. Paul’s Hospital, said the hypothesis is that immunosenescence is a defining factor in immune durability. Immunosenescence is the gradual deterioration of immune systems as individuals age which affects the capacity to respond to infections and to maintain long-term immune memory acquired by infection or vaccination.

“The elderly have fragile white blood cells. They’re relatively immune compromised so it’s important to know how durable their vaccine protection is for them,” he said.

Since everyone will want the results “yesterday,” Romney said researchers will release interim results in stages to help with vaccination planning in 2022 and beyond. Romney has also been active in the development of pre-flight rapid testing protocols at the Vancouver International Airport.

The study will utilize state of the art technology that helps analyze vaccine-induced immunity.  The research is part of the federal government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF). Scientists across Canada have been asked to conduct research that helps answer what proportion of the general population has antibodies to COVID-19; how long immunity lasts after infections; what antibody tests are the best; and how long individuals are protected against COVID after being vaccinated.

In Alberta, teams will look at vaccine-induced immunity as well as whether sewage wastewater can be used as an early warning system to detect outbreaks in LTC facilities. Wastewater samples from selected LTC facilities in Edmonton will be analyzed to determine whether the virus is circulating even before residents and staff develop symptoms. If levels of COVID biomarkers are detected, then it would trigger rapid testing to identify those who are infected to help prevent the spread of the disease.