Ambassador Bridge with Canadian and U.S. flagsA $500,000 grant will fuel a project to research improvements in detecting potentially pandemic pathogens in the region of North America’s busiest border crossing.

Researchers working to learn from the COVID pandemic and prepare for emerging global pathogens

“It makes sense to be prepared” when it comes to the possibility of a new pathogen or new COVID variant infecting people in Windsor-Essex, says Kenneth Ng, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

That is why Dr. Ng joined seven fellow UWindsor researchers from various disciplines on a project to improve the surveillance and detection of new potentially harmful pathogens and to develop a flexible framework for dealing with challenges from future pandemics.

“To meet the urgent challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, our group rapidly established a surveillance-based informative framework combining saliva-based PCR screening, wastewater testing, pathogen genome sequencing and a real-time dashboard to efficiently communicate information to decision-makers and the community,” says Ng, principal investigator on the new grant.

“Now that the public health emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, our group is hoping to learn from what worked and what did not work, so that a more effective pathogen surveillance system and improved public policies can be put in place to prepare for the emergence of pathogens with the potential to cause disruptive pandemics in the future.”

The team is funded with a two-year, $500,000 Research for Postpandemic Recovery grant from the New Frontiers in Research Fund, under the strategic direction of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee.

The researchers include: Ng and Yufeng Tong from chemistry and biochemistry, Kendall Soucie in psychology, Marta Leardi-Anderson and Laurie Tannous of the Cross-Border Institute, Pooya Moradian Zadeh in computer science, Mike McKay of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, and Lisa Porter in biomedical sciences and executive director of the WE-Spark Health Institute.

The multidisciplinary team brings together expertise in molecular virology, genome sequencing, assay development, wastewater testing, participant uptake, compliance, and satisfaction, social computing, big data analysis, and border relations and policies.

Windsor-Essex sits at the busiest border crossing in North America where more than 6,000 residents commute routinely to the U.S., making the region particularly sensitive to emerging pathogens and their many far-ranging social and economic impacts.

“The main idea is that before another pandemic-capable pathogen comes along, we need to set up a better monitoring system and put in place robust evidence-based policies to help avoid the need for drastic measures like shutting down the border,” says Ng.

Ng says the project is focused on designing better ways to monitor pathogens, collect samples, and test samples from the people most affected by pandemic restrictions, like cross-border health-care workers: “A great strength of this project is the close collaboration between experts in public policy, science and social science.”

Dr. Soucie is a co-principal investigator on the project and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.

Her role involves collecting data on participant interest, willingness, and engagement in the screening platform and consulting with the Canada Border Services Agency and Detroit area hospitals. Her contribution provides the foundation on which the testing and analysis will build.

“All of these perspectives will be integrated so that we build a consumer-friendly sustainable platform that best serves the needs of these populations,” says Dr. Soucie.

Yufeng Tong, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is also a co-principal investigator. With funding from the WE-Spark Health Institute and the CIHR COVID-GAP program, he has already produced a saliva-based COVID detection program on campus and started to make reagents necessary for detecting other respiratory pathogens.

“For this project, our rapid COVID detection method will be updated to test for new pathogens, and this will be coupled with Dr. Mike McKay’s wastewater COVID testing to provide a flexible and multi-pronged platform to monitor the spread of emerging pathogens,” says Dr. Tong.

The specific goals of the collaborative project are:

  • to monitor a broad range of pathogens with pandemic potential by extending existing wastewater testing and genome sequencing platform;
  • to evaluate threats from novel pathogens by extending the capabilities of a combined computational and experimental platform;
  • to expand the pathogen monitoring dashboard to rapidly and effectively communicate critical public health information to border communities in a transparent manner that addresses the potential for misinformation; and
  • to conduct a behaviour analysis of cross-border commuters that will inform public health leaders on effective ways to increase compliance on voluntary public health measures including saliva-based PCR screening for emerging pathogens.

“I think we have a very collaborative group with complementary expertise in different fields,” says Tong. “Bringing together experts from different areas will be important to meet the challenges posed by pathogens with pandemic potential in the future.”

—Sara Elliott