Faculty of Science research projects related to COVID-19

Our researchers from different disciplines are working on multiple projects related to COVID-19

Illustration of the coronavirus.

Maxim Berezovski – Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences

Prof. Berezovski received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to develop low-cost, rapid point-of-care tests to diagnose COVID-19. He assembled a team of specialists in chemistry, infectious diseases, and clinical diagnostics, who are using aptamer sensor technology developed by his group to create a simple test, similar to a pregnancy test, for COVID-19 diagnosis. These tests are urgently needed for the quick isolation of those infected.

Prof. Berezovski also received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), in partnership with Lumex Instruments Canada, to develop a new type of COVID-19 diagnostic test that detects both the SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA and proteins. This dual detection method will provide a comprehensive diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 in various biological fluids (blood, saliva, sputum, nasopharyngeal or oropharyngeal swabs). It can be performed in two hours and will be much more specific than current tests that only detect viral RNA.

Prof. Berezovski’s research on COVID-19 has been advancing at a remarkable pace, which has allowed him to apply for additional rapid response research funding from these and other funders. We will be updating this page with his results as they become available.

Mayer Alvo – Department of Mathematics and Statistics

Graduate student Jingrui Mu, working with Prof. Alvo, is undertaking a project entitled “A Statistical Analysis of COVID-19 Data” for her Master’s thesis. Using statistical methods, she will analyze COVID-19 data to estimate the rates of infection in different cities in North America, as well as in other countries. Through this project, the researchers aim to determine the factors influencing the rate of infection, and to test whether there is a significant difference in rates between age groups for males and females.

Xuhua Xia – Department of Biology

Prof. Xia and graduate students Yulong Wei, Parisa Aris and Alibek Kruglikov, are working on two projects that aim to help understand the genetic evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In the first project, they are analyzing the ancestry of the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome, in order to identify its most recent common ancestor. In their second project, Prof. Xia and his team are studying the directional, adaptive changes in the SARS-CoV-2 genome mediated by mutation and selection. This research is important, as it will allow us to better understand the origin, spread and evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Rees Kassen – Department of Biology

Prof. Kassen is leading a project aimed at understanding the distribution and prevalence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in and around COVID-19 treatment centers. This project is of high priority for physicians, other front-line health care workers, hospital administrators, and public health agencies. It received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and also involves researchers from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Carleton University and the University of Waterloo, and is being conducted in partnership with DNA Genotek and hospital-based surveillance programs and infection prevention and control programs at The Ottawa Hospital. Prof. Kassen and his team are refining technologies to recover viral genetic material from commonly-touched surfaces in hospitals and to track the prevalence of the virus over time. Put simply, they will determine whether and where the virus is present in order to safeguard front line workers and reduce spread.

In a separate project, PhD student Angela Alonso, working with Prof. Kassen and researchers from Clarkson University (Susan Bailey, who completed her PhD at uOttawa) and Aarhus University, is making use of publicly available genome sequence data from around the world to examine how the virus is evolving during the pandemic. She looks for the same genetic changes arising independently in different viral lineages, a signature that natural selection rather than mutation is driving viral evolution. Her work will help reveal if the virus is evolving to become better or worse at infecting humans.

Michael Organ – Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences

Testing for viruses, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is done using a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)-based test to detect the 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 need for this linker material has increased more than a dozen-fold, throwing this precious material into a global backorder. Consequently, there is a concerning shortage of the test kits to diagnose patient infection for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Prof. Organ has received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to undertake a project that addresses this problem, in partnership with Toronto Research Chemicals (TRC) who has been providing the global supply of the non-nucleoside linker for almost the last 20 years. Prof. Organ’s group is developing a new, more sustainable and safer flow chemistry route to prepare the linker in large quantities. This technology will then be transferred to the TRC production facility in Toronto, allowing them to scale up production of the linker molecule and relieve the global shortage of PCR test kits for SARS-CoV-2.

Along with a colleague from Carleton University, Prof. Organ received funding from Mitacs to assemble a large team of post-doctoral fellows who are working on the chemical processes required to rapidly develop novel small-molecule therapeutics to deal with virus replication and bacterial infection. Screening of the anti-bacterial candidates produced will take place at The Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University, while assessment of antiviral candidates will be conducted by the virology teams at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine.

Jean-Michel Ménard – Department of Physics

Many viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, are transmitted by respiratory droplets sprayed out when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks. These droplets can land directly on surfaces or be transferred to objects such as doorknobs if touched by an infected person. The virus, which often remains infectious for several hours and up to three days, can then spread if a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their mouth, eyes or nose.

Professor Ménard received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for a collaborative project involving ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd., an Ontario-based company focusing on the development of graphene-based materials. Together, they are working on a project to develop a coating material that kills viruses on contact and prevents their transmission. A main project outcome will be to allow scientists to develop consumer products and health care equipment with more effective and reliable pathogen-killing surfaces. When used in hospitals, long-term care centres or other public spaces, these antiviral materials will reduce transmission and slow the rate of infection, thus saving many lives.

Muralee Murugesu – Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences

Professor Murugesu’s research aims to discover efficient multifunctional materials to address societal challenges, as well as to find new applications for these materials that can ensure the welfare of Canadians while ensuring benefits for Canada's economy. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prof. Murugesu received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for a project in collaboration with General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems - Canada Inc., to develop the next generation of smarter and safer personal protective equipment (PPE) based on materials his group has expertise in preparing. This new PPE will protect Canadians from dangerous microorganisms dispersed in the air, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Though it is widely recommended that social distance is the best measure to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, healthcare workers on the frontlines and military personnel need self-protection equipment so they can assist the population while working safely. This project aims to prepare, characterize and scale-up the production of high performing porous materials termed Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs), which will be combined with polymeric microfibers. The ultimate goal is to implement high performance filtering materials to support the fabrication of high efficiency PPE, in order to provide frontline workers dealing with infected patients with high-performing masks, respirators and apparel.

Stacey Smith? – Department of Mathematics and Statistics (cross-appointed to the Faculty of Medicine, School of Epidemiology and Public Health)

With the COVID-19 pandemic upon us and mathematical modelling being used by both provincial and federal governments to guide decision-making, the reliability of such models becomes paramount. In a project supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Professor Stacey Smith? is collaborating with two Ottawa firms; cloud-based remote work platform business Tehama and IT services company Pythian, to analyze the modelling predictions done in three recent pandemics - SARS in 2003 (also a coronavirus), the H1N1 "swine flu" outbreak of 2009 and MERS, starting in 2012 (another coronavirus). Their goals is to assess how accurate these models were in the long term. This project is also exploring the predictive limits of random events such as superspreaders (individuals who are vastly more likely to transmit the disease than most people) or the onset of a second (or third) wave. While it would be optimal to wait for further data in order to validate current models, in the early stages of a fast-moving pandemic, we do not have the luxury of time. Using the data and past predictions, Prof. Smith? and her collaborators will develop and analyze parallel COVID-19 models based on best practices from the most successful past models. These COVID-19 models will allow decision-makers to gain early warning of further waves, as well as other future pandemics, with the knowledge of which models are likely to be reliable and under what circumstances.

Vincent Tabard-Cossa – Department of Physics
John Pezacki – Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences

The urgency of the global health crisis caused by the corona virus SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, calls for the development of rapid, low-cost and accurate diagnostic tests. These tests must be ultrasensitive to enable detection of just a few copies of the pathogen in a sample. They must also allow for low-cost detection on-site, rather than in a centralized lab, for rapid results and timely intervention.

Supported by funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Professors Tabard-Cossa and Pezacki joined forces to develop such a diagnostic test. They are using the power of nanopore sensing; the most promising ultrasensitive technology amenable to decentralization. Nanopores are purely electrical single molecule detectors and are thus uniquely suited for miniaturization while maintaining ultra-high sensitivity. Through this project, the researchers are demonstrating the feasibility of using solid-state nanopores as single-molecule digital sensors for rapid and ultra-sensitive identification of SARS-CoV-2, compatible with an instrument platform the size of a smart phone.