Shifting gears to address the COVID-19 pandemic: Faculty of Science professors rose to the challenge

Faculty of Science
Aerial view of the campus
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, government research funding agencies around the world, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), enabled a rapid shift of research efforts by earmarking funding for COVID-19 research to address this unprecedented crisis. Numerous professors in the Faculty of Science saw this initiative as an opportunity to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, and the following faculty members were successful in receiving NSERC Alliance COVID-19 grants.

Professor Maxim Berezovski in partnership with Lumex Instruments Canada is developing a novel and rapid COVID-19 diagnostic test to detect both the SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA and its proteins. This dual detection method provides a comprehensive diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 in various biological specimens (blood, saliva, sputum, nasopharyngeal or oropharyngeal swabs) in under two hours, a marked improvement over current tests that only detect viral RNA.

Professor Rees Kassen’s project in collaboration with researchers from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Carleton University and the University of Waterloo, and in partnership with DNA Genotek, aimed to understand the dispersion and prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 by recovering viral genetic material from fomites (commonly touched surfaces) in hospitals and to track its prevalence over time. This research is helping determine the presence of the virus and thus safeguard front line workers while attenuating its spread.

Testing for SARS-CoV-2 is done using a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)-based test to detect viral RNA. PCR tests require probes, which are prepared using routine chemical processes that involve a molecule called a trifunctional non-nucleoside linker. Since the pandemic outbreak, the increased demand for this linker material resulted in a shortage of PCR test kits. Professor Michael Organ addressed this problem in partnership with Toronto Research Chemicals (TRC). Together, they developed a novel, more sustainable and safer flow chemistry route to prepare the linker in large quantities, allowing TRC to scale up production and help alleviate the global shortage of PCR test kits.

COVID-19 is an airborne disease that is transmitted by respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks. These droplets containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus can land on fomites such as doorknobs and spread if a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their mouth, eyes or nose. Professor Jean-Michel Ménard undertook a project with ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. to develop an innovative coating material that kills viruses on contact and prevents their transmission. When used in hospitals, long-term care centres or other public spaces, these antiviral coating on surfaces reduce transmission and slow the rate of infection.

Professor Muralee Murugesu received funding for a project in collaboration with General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems - Canada, to develop the next generation of smarter and safer personal protective equipment (PPE). Though social distance is a recommended measure to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, healthcare workers and military personnel need PPE to work safely. The project developed high performance filter materials to support the fabrication of high efficiency PPE, in order to provide frontline workers with high-performance masks, respirators and other apparel.

Mathematical modelling is used by governments to guide decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Stacey Smith? collaborated with Ottawa firms Tehama and Pythian to analyze the modelling predictions of three previous pandemics — SARS, the H1N1 "swine flu" and MERS — with the goal of assessing the long-term accuracy of these models. Prof. Smith? developed parallel COVID-19 models based on best practices from the most successful past models, to allow decision-makers to gain early warning of further waves, as well as other future pandemics.

Professors Vincent Tabard-Cossa and John Pezacki joined forces to develop a rapid and accurate diagnostic test for COVID-19. They used the power of nanopore sensing, a promising technology for ultrasensitive and decentralized testing. Nanopores are nanoscale sensors that electrically detect single molecules and can thus be miniaturized while maintaining ultra-high sensitivity. The researchers are demonstrating the feasibility of using solid-state nanopores as single-molecule digital molecular counters, downstream of an isothermal amplification, for rapid and accurate identification of SARS-CoV-2, compatible with an instrument platform the size of a smart phone.