Two young boys sit on the steps outside a school in the sunshine wearing surgical masks and backpacks and chatting with each other.
Photo: Pexels/Rodnae Productions

A new national study involving the collection of blood samples is expected to shed light on the number of children and youth in Canada who’ve been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We still don’t know how many kids have been infected up to this point, and the rate of infection going forward has a lot of importance for public health policy,” Dr. Soren Gantt said in an interview Thursday.

A professor of microbiology at the Université de Montréal and a pediatric infectious disease specialist and director of clinical research at the CHU Sainte-Justine pediatric hospital in Montréal, Gantt is leading the new study. It’s being conducted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the federal government through the national COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF).

“What we’ll be able to do with the data is to estimate the number of kids who’ve been infected and the number of kids who are immune, whether from vaccination or from infection,” Gantt said.

“And we’ll be able to relate those data to vaccination rates in these different populations and regions as well as reported rates of infection using testing, hospitalizations, severe disease, etc.”

A smiling man wearing bright brownish orange glasses and a pale blue shirt and dark blue jacket smiles at the camera as he stands in front of a corridor.
Dr. Soren Gantt. Photo: Contributed/Stephane Dedelis

Gantt said collecting this data is particularly important in light of a significant nationwide reduction in routine COVID-19 lab testing that makes it difficult to gauge the true number of infections — especially in a cohort that tends to experience mild disease or can be infected but asymptomatic.

“There are also some concerns about the possibility of long-COVID symptoms in kids and without knowing how many kids are infected, it’s hard to say what proportion of them will have sequelae like that,” Gantt said.

The study will include the analysis of 36,000 blood samples from children between the ages of zero and 18.

It also involves the participation of 16 hospitals in eight provinces — Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

“We’ll use leftover blood samples that were collected from kids for clinical reasons in 16 different emergency departments across Canada,” Gantt explained.

Gantt said they chose this method because it’s efficient and allows researchers to obtain samples that were already collected rather than taking new ones from children and youth. The blood samples won’t be traceable to patients or families.

“This will be by far the largest data set in children and the most nationally representative that we’ve had so far,” he said.

“We think that we’re going to find that many, many more kids have been infected than we realized.”

Blood samples for the new study will be collected at five different times over the next year, with 7,200 used for each intake.

Gantt expects to have the first data analyzed before the end of the year.

The study is also described by Gantt as part of a coordinated effort to collaborate with pediatric care centres across the country to learn more about not only COVID-19, but other future infectious and non-infectious diseases.

“We’re really continuing to prepare for what could happen next with COVID, as well as being ready for any new, significant health problems among Canadian children,” he said.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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