What if, rather than relying solely on personal protective equipment, frontline healthcare workers could harness the power of their own immune systems to protect them from COVID-19? That is the central aim of Stephanie DeWitte-Orr’s current research program.
DeWitte-Orr, an associate professor in Laurier’s Departments of Health Sciences and Biology, is leading a team of virologists conducting pre-clinical testing on two antiviral drugs that could be used to prevent respiratory virus infection. Laurier suspended all laboratory-based research in March due to the pandemic, but exceptions are being made for time-sensitive studies that may help halt the spread of COVID-19.
“The immune system is our first line of defence against any sort of illness,” says DeWitte-Orr, who has been studying innate immunology for more than 20 years.
“These two drugs have been shown to stimulate our immune systems and, when that happens, it is almost impossible for a virus to breach our airways. So if a healthcare worker was to take one of these drugs through an inhaler, it could essentially act as a biological mask instead of a physical one.”
DeWitte-Orr’s team is currently growing a strain of coronavirus, similar to COVID-19, in their laboratory to test if it is responsive to these drugs and, if so, what dosage is required. Though not yet approved for human use, DeWitte-Orr has previously found one of the drugs to be effective against infectious viruses like influenza virus and Ebola virus in human cells. Its potential for broad application is part of the drug’s appeal.
“During an outbreak like COVID-19, there is an immediate need for preventative treatments that are broad-spectrum and quickly deployable to fill the long gap until a vaccine is developed,” says DeWitte-Orr. “An off-the-shelf, inhalable antiviral drug would be a valuable tool globally to not only prevent the spread of COVID-19, but future respiratory outbreaks.”
Much like a vaccine, there are many trial stages ahead before either drug makes its way into the healthcare system. But DeWitte-Orr is hopeful that her years of previous study will lead to expedited results and is proud to be doing her part to stop COVID-19 in its tracks.
“This is brand new, cutting-edge research. No one else is doing this,” says DeWitte-Orr. “It’s exciting that our local research team is contributing to the global knowledge of this virus.”
Jonathan Crush, a professor of in the School of International Policy and Governance at Laurier and global migration and food security scholar at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, secured nearly $500,000 in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study how the outbreak of COVID-19 is impacting food security in China and how to improve food access and availability.
Together with researchers at the University of Waterloo and Nanjing University in China, Crush is connecting directly with residents of Wuhan and Nanjing to examine how quarantine measures, unstable supply and fear are making access to food more challenging across the country.
“By examining the relationship between the COVID-19 epidemic and the food security of populations at risk of infection, this project will make a major contribution to our understanding of how policy responses to epidemics can impact the lives and livelihoods of millions,” says Crush.
Crush and his team are utilizing data, expertise and networks developed through the Hungry Cities Partnership, an international network of cities and partner organizations that focuses on addressing food security challenges in the Global South. Crush is director of the partnership, which was established in 2015.
In March, two Laurier professors co-edited a “rapid response collection” of 10 essays by Canadian scholars that examine societal and governmental reactions to the COVID-19 outbreak. Writing in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic: From Vulnerability to Solidarity was written, edited and published in less than two weeks in order to cast a critical eye on this historic event during its early stages.
Co-editors Penelope Ironstone, associate professor in Laurier’s Department of Communication Studies, and Greg Bird, associate professor of Sociology, felt an urgent need to react to the pandemic as it unfolded.
“During the Spanish flu pandemic in the early 1900s, people were so busy with the work of living that they didn’t capture the moment until after it happened,” says Ironstone. “With COVID-19, we were already seeing dramatic, rapid changes happening around us and we needed to reflect on them as quickly as possible. In a period of heightened panic, the critical gaze is even more essential.”
The essay collection explores a range of topics including how fear is motivating people to willingly give up their civil rights, the lack of preparedness by nations that have had ample warning that a pandemic was inevitable, and how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting disenfranchised populations. Bird and Ironstone are working on a second volume to be released this summer.
– Penelope Ironstone
– Simon Coulombe
Simon Coulombe, assistant professor of psychology, is studying how factors related to the COVID-19 outbreak, especially social distancing measures including working from home, impact individuals’ mental health, family relationships, finances and overall wellbeing.
“Canadians are not used to this level of social isolation,” says Coulombe. “This is a unique opportunity to study how workers are affected by such a drastic change in their routines. How does being home together all day strain family relationships? How does taking care of children while working impact the quality of work? And what are the ripple effects on mental health?”
Coulombe is collaborating with two professors at the Université du Québec à Montréal and Tyler Pacheco, a graduate student in Laurier’s Community Psychology program. The team began by surveying more than 1,000 Canadian adults who were working at least 20 hours per week before the COVID-19 outbreak. The same sample group was surveyed two weeks later, and will be surveyed again after two months to assess how their attitudes, wellbeing and routines have evolved.
The researchers are also conducting a social network analysis to study how participants’ social behaviours may change in relation to reduced opportunities for face-to-face interaction, and if online interactions may protect against the negative mental health impacts of isolation.
Known widely as experts in business, science, history, politics and the environment, Laurier faculty are regularly sought by members of the media to comment about COVID-19. Laurier voices have appeared in publications including the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s, as well as on radio and television.
“The amount that we’ve spent so far on the (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) is what we would normally spend on employment insurance in an entire year. We’ve done that in a matter of a couple of weeks … that’s the magnitude of this impact.”
– Tammy Schirle (professor, Economics) in the Toronto Star
“It just takes one person to visit another person who for some reason relaxes their ideas to visit another person to get that chain going. We know that the virus is very easily transmittable. So the idea is to cut off any potential transmission chains.”
– Todd Coleman (assistant professor, Health Sciences) on Global News
“People tend to be responsive to the degree to which they feel something is a big risk. So if they're experiencing a lot of fear and they see the negative consequences as risky, then they're more likely to follow the rules pretty carefully.”
– Anne Wilson (professor, Psychology) on CBC
"The change in mentality that comes out of (the Spanish flu pandemic in) 1918 is the recognition that taking a shared responsibility toward preventing, controlling and managing disease is important.”
– Mark Humphries (associate professor, History) in the New York Times