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A new study aiming to provide a “reliable and timely picture” of how many Canadians have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 will see more than 3,600 blood test kits and surveys mailed to Nova Scotia households in the coming months.

On Monday, Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force announced details of the Canadian COVID-19 Antibody and Health Survey being conducted by Statistics Canada. Between Nov. 2 and March 26, 2021, 48,000 Canadians aged 1 and up across the country will receive a mail package containing a survey and an at-home ‘finger prick’ blood test kit.

The goal is to figure out how many Canadians have had SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) and to learn more about whether or not they had symptoms. It’s the first study in Canada to use a representative sample of all Canadians covering each province and territory.

In a telephone interview on Monday afternoon, Dr. Catherine Hankins, co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, said this study will provide “a better feel” for how many Canadians have actually been infected.

“They may not have had any symptoms, they may have had mild symptoms, they may not have had access to testing, or decided not to have a test, or not even know that they were exposed,” Hankins said.

“So we’ll get a better feel for it. If you’re thinking about the idea of an iceberg and the COVID cases kind of being the tip of the iceberg that we see, this will give us an idea about how many are underneath the surface of the water in that iceberg.”

Dr. Catherine Hankins, co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. Photo: COVID-19 Immunity Task Force

Hankins said the study will feature a broad range of ages (one-year-olds up to people older than 100) from rural areas and cities of all sizes.

“It gives a much more complete picture of what has been going on,” she said.

The fact those selected to participate will learn their antibody results will likely be a motivator for many, she said. Hankins added that while we don’t yet know the significance of antibody results — whether it offers protection against the virus and if so for how long — many people are curious about where they stand.

‘We need them’

She said the study’s importance also means those who participate are making a significant contribution to the country’s pandemic response. She said they’re urging all selected participants to be part of the study.

“We need them. It’s a small thing to do, but it really is participating in getting information that can help both our public health and policy makers better tailor the responses,” she explained.

“For example this might show that there are areas that needed more testing services that we didn’t really know about because there’s been asymptomatic transmission…It gives public health decision makers a better picture of what’s been happening beyond COVID-19 cases that they’ve seen.”

Hankins said the study’s results will also help inform some decisions around any future vaccine rollout. In addition to learning more about previously unknown areas of transmission, she said results will provide additional information to help better determine which populations should be prioritized when a COVID-19 vaccine does become widely available.

Researchers are choosing participants based on a formula “determined to get the most representative sample,” so Canadians can’t simply volunteer. Those selected will receive via mail a survey and testing kit. Participants are required to fill out an online questionnaire (or do it by phone), answering socio-demographic questions as well as information on their COVID-19 exposure, experiences, and symptoms.

Participants are required to take a finger prick sample (also known as dried blood spot test), to determine whether they have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, which would suggest a previous COVID-19 infection. They’ll learn their results and be given information regarding what is known about antibody testing.

“The package itself, it’ll say what person should be doing it, what age they have to be, what sex,” Hankins said. “It’s really important that person does it, because they’re representing not only themselves, but other people their same age, their sex, their geography.”

By the end of this week, about 350 households in Nova Scotia will have received the first batch of mailed surveys and testing kits. The remaining 3,268 selected Nova Scotians will receive kits in January and February.

Hankins said the first wave of 4,000 surveys and test kits sent across the country last week will provide what she called a national estimate. The second and third mail-outs will give researchers provincial and territorial estimates.

Although full results won’t be released until May, by January Hankins expects to have a sense of national results from the first 4,000 samples sent out last Monday.

Hankins said her task force is funding a number of different studies looking at antibodies in blood donors, pregnant women, areas hard-hit by COVID-19, and specific populations that include long-term care residents, homeless people, grocery store workers, and bus drivers. But this study will help pull everything together.

“We’re trying to get a better feel for what their antibody prevalence might be, but this (study) is sort of like we’ve got this puzzle laid out and we’re filling in the pieces,” she said.

“This one kind of provides an overall framework on which to hang all the other data that we’re going to be getting, so that’s why it’s so exciting. It’s truly representative of the Canadian population.”

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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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  1. You test enough people with a crappy unreliable test you are going to get “positive cases.” You call them asymptomatic? Doctors around the world are calling them a ‘false positive.’ We already know that 80% of the deaths in Canada were in long term care. Most are over 80 years old. Wow…this is unbelievable.