COVID-19

Fighting COVID-19 with tobacco: How Vancouver Island research is taking on the pandemic

Home coronavirus tests, an antivirus door handle coating and forensic work into when the earliest cases were among us

COVID-19

Fighting COVID-19 with tobacco: How Vancouver Island research is taking on the pandemic

Home coronavirus tests, an antivirus door handle coating and forensic work into when the earliest cases were among us

University of Victoria chemist Alex Brolo, who is developing a saliva test for COVID-19 that could be read using a cell phone (UVic Photo Services).
COVID-19

Fighting COVID-19 with tobacco: How Vancouver Island research is taking on the pandemic

Home coronavirus tests, an antivirus door handle coating and forensic work into when the earliest cases were among us

Fighting COVID-19 with tobacco: How Vancouver Island research is taking on the pandemic
University of Victoria chemist Alex Brolo, who is developing a saliva test for COVID-19 that could be read using a cell phone (UVic Photo Services).

As previously covered by The Capital, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred one of history’s largest collaborative scientific efforts. Whatever ultimately tames this pandemic, there’s a good chance that it will involve technology developed right here. Below, in partnership with UVic researcher Harley Gordon, The Capital has summarized the publicly funded COVID-19 research being performed on Vancouver Island. 

Building a better COVID-19 test 

Aside from finding a vaccine, the Holy Grail of COVID-19 research is to find a better test. Easier tests not only mean that outbreaks are caught earlier, but could allow faster recovery of commercial and civic life. Thus, some of the Island’s most exciting COVID-19 research is devoted towards finding technology to streamline testing. 

Long before COVID-19 was a thing, UVic chemist Alexandre Brolo had worked on developing a way to test for dengue fever and the Zika virus using saliva samples. Now, along with Victoria’s ImmunoPrecise Antibodies, he’s hammering out a saliva test for COVID-19. “A real-time COVID-19 test could be used in public spaces where you need to be able to rapidly screen people,” Brolo said in a UVic press release. Thus, instead of screening people with a temperature check — a dubious measure for a disease that largely spreads among asymptomatics — businesses and event promoters could eventually have the technology to directly test for COVID-19 with little more than a cell phone app. 

UVic chemist Katherine Elvira is similarly working with the company Epic Semiconductors to develop a “lab-on-a-chip” home test for COVID-19 that would be similar to home pregnancy tests. And UVic mechanical engineer Mohsen Akbari is working on a rapid COVID-19 test that would function similar to the home blood tests used by diabetics. “It will be like a small cartridge, similar to glucose test strips that works with a blood prick and measures the short-term and long-term response of [the] immune system to the virus,” he told The Capital. 


Bringing down the cost of one of the most expensive substances in the world

Tobacco has rarely if ever been a helpful ally in the cause of human respiratory health. But right now, growing under LED lights at the University of Victoria is a close cousin of the tobacco plant that could ultimately be instrumental in simplifying tests for COVID-19. 

It’s all part of an effort to streamline antibody tests. These are the tests that can determine if someone has already contracted the disease and fought it off; a particularly valuable data point for a disease that mostly infects people without them knowing. To do so, scientists need a better source of “spike proteins.” Coronaviruses gets their name from a “corona” of spikes on their exterior, and lab technicians need a purified mix of these proteins in order to perform antibody tests.

A Centers for Disease Control illustration of the novel coronavirus. The spike proteins are coloured in red.

“The problem is that it’s currently very expensive to make the spike protein, on the order of 0.5 to 1 million US dollars per gram of protein,” wrote UVic biochemist Francis Nano in an email to The Capital. “The goal of our research is to bring down the cost of the spike protein by a factor of 100 or more, so that the spike protein will cost less than $10,000/gram.”

And that’s where the tobacco comes in. In the lab of UVic biologist Peter Constabel, researchers have genetically modified tobacco plants with COVID-19 genes. Fields of these plants could ultimately serve as a cheap way to mass-manufacture spike proteins. 

COVID-19 infused tobacco plants growing under LED lights (Harley Gordon).


Tracing the footsteps of the pandemic

We already know that COVID-19 has been surging through Western cities since at least Christmas, before the disease had even been identified at its origin in Wuhan, China. Cracking the code of COVID-19 requires knowing exactly how and where it got into our communities, which is why, in addition to making a better antibody test, UVic is also leading the development of technology that would analyze sewage to see if COVID-19 has infected a population. 

This would not only be an easy way to be alerted to future outbreaks, but could be applied to archived wastewater samples to see how early COVID-19 was under community spread. The first sewage researchers are going to test is Victoria’s own. “Victoria is currently at a near-zero point with COVID-19, so any data we can collect now provides us with a baseline against which we can compare when the virus returns,” civil engineering researcher Heather Buckley said in a UVic statement

Heather Buckley poses with a thermos full of sewage (UVic photo services)


A coronavirus-resistant coating 

The sanitization costs alone imposed by COVID-19 have likely soared into the billions of dollars. Bathtubs full of hand sanitizer, swimming pools full of Lysol and millions of lost retail hours due to the extra time needed to wipe down touch points. 

COVID-19 sticks to surfaces because of its aforementioned spike proteins. So, if you have a surface that repels the virus’ spikes, you have a surface that isn’t a risk to infect others. Civil engineer Rishi Gupta, working with the Mission-based designer bathtub company Valley Acrylic Bath, is developing a type of acrylic wash basin designed to be particularly unfriendly to coronaviruses. If a series of early tests on public wash basins in Victoria and Vancouver pan out, it could be the basis of an acrylic coating to adorn everything from doorknobs to shopping cart handles.

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Ensuring our protective equipment never again runs out

While masks and hand sanitizer have once again returned to stores, the first weeks of this pandemic were defined by critical shortages of PPE around the world: Nurses needing to wear the same N95 mask for days on end and hospitals forced to scour hardware stores, construction sites and emergency kits for any extra supply of masks and gloves. 

An immediate fix is being explored by Naomi Tabata at North Island College in the form of an automated bottling system for distilleries that switch to hand sanitizer production in time of crisis. Camosun College’s Richard Gale is looking at methods to mass-produce face shields and use specialized ovens to sterilize used masks. And UVic political scientist Claire Cutler is looking at how to shield against future PPE supplies being kneecapped by breakdowns in world trade. “It is a serious strategic error to rely on global supply chains as the global trend towards economic nationalism and protectionism, evident before the COVID-19 pandemic, has intensified due to the crisis,” Cutler wrote to The Capital, noting that “Canada and BC need to consider aiming for as close to self-sufficiency as we can get.”


Weighing the knock-on effects of shutting down society 

Even with 640,000 dead and 16 million infected, time may eventually show that the most deleterious effects of COVID-19 were that it forced the months-long suspension of normal civic life and world trade. In BC alone, a spike in overdose deaths spurred by lockdowns have dwarfed the number killed by COVID-19, not counting dozens more “excess deaths” that have mainly been chalked up to BCers dying of heart attacks due to fears of visiting the emergency room. 

UVic social policy researcher Nathan Lachowsky is probing how isolation has specifically affected gay and trans men. UVic geographer Jutta Gutberlet is looking at how the shutdowns have affected both Victoria and Brazilian populations of “binners”; people who make their living from scrounging recyclables from garbage cans. 

And at Vancouver Island University, Shannon Dames is looking at how burned-out medical staff in hard-hit areas such as Montreal or New York City could be used to research mental health therapies for trauma. “Who better to vet these promising therapies [than those] that may very well help us turn the mental health tide?” wrote Dames to The Capital. 

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