May 27, 2020

UCalgary researchers launch 360-degree study of children and COVID-19

Unlocking the unique fingerprint of the virus will inform potential treatments and vaccines
Dr. Jim Kellner
COVID-19 Research Deptartment of Paediatrics

When it comes to children and COVID-19, we have many more questions than answers. Why are most children not getting as sick from the virus? Why are some becoming critically ill? Why are some developing puzzling symptoms? And, are children carrying the virus and spreading it silently through families and communities? 

A multidisciplinary team of UCalgary researchers is studying the genes and immune response of Alberta children, and the unique genetic code of the virus itself in pan-Alberta research focused on tracking the transmission of COVID-19.

“Children here in Alberta, and around the world, have milder symptoms and recover more rapidly than adults with COVID,” says Dr. Jim Kellner, MD (pictured above), a professor in the departments of Paediatrics, Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Disease, and Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and an infectious disease researcher at the CSM’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI).

We want to better understand how contagious children are, precisely how the virus is affecting their young bodies, and how children develop immunity against COVID-19.

Team to track how COVID-19 is transmitted by children

Kellner is leading a team of 29 child health and wellness scientists and physicians to study children with COVID-19 across the province. The Alberta Childhood COVID-19 Cohort Study (AB3C) will investigate how children are responding to the infection and how they are spreading it. The UCalgary study, a collaboration between the University of Alberta, Alberta Health Services (AHS), the Alberta Children’s Hospital and Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL), is funded by Genome Alberta and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation through ACHRI.

Alberta is a Canadian leader in COVID testing, completing more than 200,000 tests, testing more than 22,000 children and youth, including some with no symptoms, says Kellner, also a member of the Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. “

We are so fortunate in Alberta to have province-wide systems and teams — AHS, APL, and electronic medical records — that facilitate the study of the virus infection in children and detection of antibodies in children who have contracted the disease.”

This research will draw from provincial COVID test results and collect blood, urine and stool samples which will be biobanked. Kellner’s team will then follow up with families to track short- and long-term symptoms of the disease and its impact on family and community members.  

A member of the Canadian COVID-19 Immunity Task Force Leadership Group, Kellner will report Alberta findings to a national network of scientists, clinicians and public health experts. “This powerful collaboration between a national initiative and UCalgary scientists will allow us to share detailed evidence on COVID-19 spread, the development of immunity and targets for potential treatments and vaccines,” says Kellner.

Dr. Francois Bernier with Dr. David Bailey, Pres. & CEO Alberta Genome

Francois Bernier, left, with David Bailey of Alberta Genome.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

COVID-19 under the microscope

The team will also look at the biology of the virus, the child’s genome and immune response to the infection. One aim of this deep dive is to study whether the virus is changing as it moves through the population. Dr. Francois Bernier, MD, head of the Department of Medical Genetics and professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the CSM and an ACHRI physician-scientist, is leading the genomics arm of the study.

Bernier and his colleagues will delve into the unique bar code of each instance of the virus itself. “The genetic code of the virus is like a FedEx label,” says Bernier. “Deep analysis of the virus’s genes will allow us to precisely trace transmission, allowing us to say ‘This one originated in Europe, and this one came from the United States’,” he says.

Investigating COVID-19 in children will help scientists understand why some people become critically ill with the virus and others only mildly ill. To that end, the genomics team will also investigate the full biology of Albertans infected with the virus. The interplay between the virus’s genes and the genes of infected Albertans is a key focus.

“Not everyone is equally susceptible to COVID,” says Bernier. “We suspect genetics play a critical role.

“Data mining is also essential to our understanding the complexities of COVID,” he continues. “We have big data experts at UCalgary who will use machine learning to give us real answers on this virus, how it is moving and spreading, and how it is interacting with the genes and the immune system of Albertans who are infected.”

The multi-disciplinary team includes immunologists, epidemiologists, infectious and inflammatory disease experts, geneticists, bioinformaticians, health economists, and advanced computing experts. Bernier will share his team’s data with national and international research groups including
GISAID, contributing to a global effort to map the pandemic’s movement, its evolving genetics, and the latest development of medical countermeasures.

“As social isolation policies change and we focus more keenly on community spread, it will be increasingly important to identify, quantify and track infections, immunity, and disease severity to be better able to predict and prevent the risk to children and families,” says Kellner.

Information on UCalgary’s response to COVID-19 can be found on the Emergency Management website.

Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases

The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions to key global challenges. Through the research strategy for Infections, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD), top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.


UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.