COVID-19 Research Q&A Series: Dr. Allison McGeer
Allison McGeer, MD, FRCPC, is a professor at the University of Toronto and an infectious disease physician at Mount Sinai Hospital. Among her many other roles, she serves on immunization and infection-control committees at the national and provincial levels. In February 2020, Dr. McGeer’s research team received a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) rapid research funding competition to study the risk factors and features of COVID-19.
How does this study fit into your expertise, and what are you working to accomplish?
Most of the research I do is observational epidemiology – understanding the interaction between pathogens and humans at individual and population levels. We designed this project to take advantage of our collaborations and fill specific gaps in COVID-19 research, so we started with several intentions. Among them were to collect and share information about specimens from COVID-19 patients to accelerate the development of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines; to collect data about the length of time for which COVID-19 patients shed the virus; and to assess the extent to which the virus contaminates the air and surfaces around patients.
How is the work progressing?
It’s going well on many fronts. We designed our study to make sure we could share specimens and data as quickly as possible. We got the first isolates and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) out to vaccine researchers and developers of monoclonal antibodies within weeks of the first infection in Toronto. Since March, we’ve been sharing serum with six groups of researchers and public health laboratories across Canada to accelerate the availability of serologic testing in Canada.
Have you encountered any obstacles?
It’s a pandemic, so many unexpected hurdles appear. For one, all of Ontario ran out of the type of swabs needed for nasopharyngeal specimens. It turns out that a major supplier is in Italy. So we pivoted to ask if saliva can be used as a specimen. That has two benefits: first, you don’t need a swab; second, patients can collect their own. This means you don’t need health care workers using up PPE to get specimens. The good news is that the data are telling us we might be able to replace pharyngeal swabs with saliva for this disease.
We’re hearing a lot in the media about the issue of patients continuing to test positive after they’ve recovered. What have you found on that front?
It’s true that people can test positive for a long time. We don’t know if that’s live or dead virus, but emerging data suggests it’s the latter. Data from our study which became available in the spring, found some patients still culture positive at day 12, but no cultures positive after that day, even if they were still polymerase chain reaction (PCR) positive. We’re hoping that we’ll get to the point where we’ll be able to say, “You don’t have worry beyond day 12 or day 14 about a patient being infectious, even if they continue to test positive.”