UBC-Providence scientists join forces with WestJet and YVR for COVID-19 Testing Study

New Delhi: This story is part of the “Making a difference” series, in which we shine a spotlight on the many ways—both big and small—that UBC community members are helping with the response to COVID-19. Share your story with us at media.relations@ubc.ca.

Over the last two decades, clinician-scientist Dr. Don Sin has spent his days doing research on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease while also caring with patients with the debilitating disease.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Along with scientists around the world, Sin and his research team quickly pivoted their research to address the pandemic. Fortunately, the vast body of knowledge they had spent years uncovering about lung disease helped them to rapidly determine how the novel coronavirus—which can also cause lung complications such as pneumonia—infects humans.

Dr. Don Sin

“When it became apparent that this pandemic was not going to be transient, like swine flu, we knew we needed to rapidly accelerate research efforts to understand how this virus affects the respiratory tract and to come up with solutions,” says Sin, professor in the UBC faculty of medicine and respiratory physician at Providence Health Care. “Since we had been working with lung tissue and studying certain receptors that cause disease in the lungs, we were able to understand very quickly how the virus also uses particular receptors in the respiratory tract to infect individuals.”

Now, Sin and his co-principal investigator Dr. Marc Romney are lending their research expertise and diagnostic know-how to support the WestJet-YVR COVID-19 Testing Study, a project sponsored by WestJet and Vancouver Airport Authority (YVR). The partnership came about when WestJet and YVR approached UBC and Providence Health Care seeking scientists who could help investigate whether a rapid screening program at YVR is a practical and effective way to contribute to a unified future solution for the global aviation industry.

The Care Pod, located just outside WestJet’s domestic check-in area at YVR, is serving as the testing station for the study. Credit: Vancouver Airport Authority

As medical leader for medical microbiology and virology at Providence Health Care, Romney heads up a clinical diagnostic lab that was already testing patient samples for several other microbes, such as HIV and influenza, before the pandemic hit. His lab at St. Paul’s Hospital quickly adjusted to begin testing for COVID-19 in February.

“While the world awaits the deployment of safe and effective vaccines for COVID-19, there is an urgent need for strategies to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus,” says Romney, who also works as a clinical associate professor in the UBC faculty of medicine. “The COVID-19 pandemic is by far the most pressing global public health issue that we are facing today. Not only is this virus easily transmissible from person-to-person, but it is also highly lethal to certain populations. Rapid testing is a critical public health intervention, much like hand hygiene and social distancing.”

Dr. Marc Romney

For the study, passengers aged 19 years and older on select departing WestJet flights at YVR will be invited to take part in the voluntary COVID-19 testing. After obtaining informed consent, the research team will collect the passenger’s nasopharyngeal swabs as well as mouth rinses and screen for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) using a rapid antigen test. Rapid antigen tests are analogous to home pregnancy tests as they can provide results within 15 to 20 minutes, making them a feasible option for study in the live airport environment at YVR.

The research team is seeking to understand how many passengers, if any, departing from YVR are asymptomatic, but have the virus, meaning that they are infected and could be potentially contagious but don’t have symptoms.

“We know that asymptomatic carriers exist but what we don’t know is exactly how common it is and how much they contribute to the spread of COVID-19,” explains Sin. “This study will not only help support aviation safety, but will also help public health leaders better understand to what degree asymptomatic individuals are contributing to the spread of COVID-19 and for us to understand whether we can effectively perform rapid COVID-19 testing on-site in places such as airports.”

The research team will screen for SARS-CoV-2 using a rapid antigen test. Credit: Vancouver Airport Authority

The scientists say they are grateful to WestJet and YVR for initiating the partnership and supporting B.C.’s public health response to COVID-19.

“I’m faced on a daily basis looking after COVID-19 patients. Regrettably, this is a disease that affects everyone, both young and old,” says Sin. “But with this research study, we have an opportunity to be leaders on the world stage in developing practical strategies to reduce the spread of this virus and contain the infection.”