U of A researchers lead study testing for COVID-19 antibodies in Edmonton children

Project will help inform provincial tracking of COVID-19’s spread in youth as they return to school.


Pediatrics professor Piush Mandhane is leading an 18-month study to measure the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies in Edmonton children as they return to school. The results will help inform the Alberta government's ongoing response to the pandemic. (Photo: Jordan Carson)

University of Alberta researchers will be following a thousand Edmonton children over the next 18 months to measure the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies in youth as they return to school.

The project, funded by a grant of nearly $700,000 from the Government of Alberta, will use serology testing to detect the presence of antibodies in the participants' blood, which indicates they have been exposed to the COVID-19 coronavirus in the past. Data from the study will be shared with Alberta Health, providing valuable information to the province as it continues to shape and revise its response to the virus.

"We're going to be looking at data as we collect it," said Piush Mandhane, an associate professor of pediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry who is leading the study. "Will we see lots of kids with antibodies now or will we see kids generating antibodies after school has returned? This information will help inform (the decisions that are made) for school next spring and school's return (in fall 2021)."

The project is part of the CHILD Cohort Study, a groundbreaking Canadian study launched in 2008 by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and AllerGen NCE. The study has been following nearly 3,500 Canadian children and their families in four provinces-British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario-from pre-birth to school age.

The researchers are now seeking other Edmonton-area children between the ages of eight and 13 to include in the study. Blood samples will be taken every six months, with lab testing to be done by Alberta Precision Laboratories. The team hopes to have a full slate of participants no later than Sept. 25.

Mandhane said the team is seeking answers to several important questions.

"We actually don't know how good the antibodies are in terms of helping prevent a child from getting infection again, or fighting off the infection. We also don't know how long the antibodies last. Do they last at least six months? Does how sick you get determine how long the antibodies last? I think there are a lot of open questions for kids," said Mandhane, who is also lead investigator of the CHILD study's Edmonton site and a member of the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.

Funding for the project was announced by the Government of Alberta earlier this summer as part of a $10-million investment that will use serology testing to track the spread of COVID-19 across the province. A sibling study involving an additional 1,000 children will be run concurrently in Calgary.

"These studies will help us estimate the number of children in Alberta who have been exposed to COVID-19, how this value changes over time, and provide us more information to assist our response and refine our advice to Albertans," commented Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

In addition to the serology testing, participants in the study will also be asked to fill out a questionnaire that will allow the researchers to measure differences in antibody prevalence by gender, ethnicity and even geography. Other questions-including travel history, use of masks, hand hygiene and extracurricular activities-will seek to determine potential exposure to COVID-19.

While compiling the data will take time, one of the first questions Mandhane hopes the study will address is top of mind for many parents in Alberta who struggled with the decision to send their kids back to the classroom.

"What's the difference in antibody rates between the children who go to school and those whose families chose online learning? Being a parent myself, that's a question that I would like answered, and hopefully this study will do that."

Funding partners for the CHILD Cohort Study include the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and supporters of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women through the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.

Families interested in enrolling in the study can do so by emailing chldstdy@ualberta.ca or calling 1-825-993-2453.