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Researchers will study back-to-work habits of other academics during COVID-19 crisis

Study will track the habits and actions of 1,500 others in the science community

Whether you're going back to school, back to your old job or rejoining a local sports team in the midst of this pandemic, one of the key questions that always comes up is: Is it safe?

That's the reason a group of Canadian academics and health science researchers are getting together to do some serious research with a 15-month study tracking the habits and actions of hundreds of workers as they are returning to the workplace. It's the first project of its kind in Canada. 

To support decision-making around relaxing restrictions and managing work environments as society reopens, an inter-sectoral group of industry, academic, and public sector partners in British Columbia is leading the $1.2 million return-to-work study. The data from the “SARS‐CoV‐2 Study for Eased Restrictions in British Columbia” (SAfER) project, collected in controlled settings, will be available in real time to help inform public health decisions that lead to positive outcomes, said a news release from the Genome BC company. 

Places that have successfully restricted person-to-person contact have also curbed transmission, but these restrictions come with damaging economic trade-offs, said the release.

Genome BC and Genome Canada are supporting the SAfER study along with several industry partners. The study is designed to track and collect data over time on infection, immunity, contacts and clinical symptoms for 1,500 volunteer employees at B.C.-based biotechnology companies, including Xenon Pharmaceuticals, STEMCELL Technologies and Zymeworks, as well as Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. 

An employee survey will also collect information about stress and anxiety related to the pandemic, said Genome BC.

Dr. Simon Pimstone (University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine, Xenon Pharmaceuticals) said the hope is to create a data-driven framework for future discussions about how to deal with pandemic restrictions. 

"The findings may be used by the provincial health system as future work-place guidelines are developed or as plans are made for the current or future pandemics. The data will also be published and made available to researchers and the public through this approach including presentations to the business community," said Pimstone. 

Given that most of the study subjects will be academics and researchers who are accustomed to taking precautions, asked if the study would reflect the actions of ordinary Canadians. Pimstone said the study will take that into consideration. 

"This SAfER BC study is targeting the life sciences sector given this sector is science-based and a sector where employees understand the process of clinical research and how clinical studies are conducted. We fully recognize that this sector may not be representative of other segments of our business communities. This may be a first foray into industry from which we can learn and hopefully adapt into other sectors such as care homes, food processing plants etc. We had to start somewhere and life sciences made sense given this industry's knowledge of science and the processes required for optimizing clinical research outcomes," said Pimstone.

Without getting into what the study might determine, Pimstone said the plan is to take the data from B.C. and eventually share it with the rest of the country. 

"We'd hope the SAfER BC study might be exported into other industry segments and into other provinces in Canada. We wanted to launch this in BC and we'll see where things go from here." said Pimstone.

The study will begin with recruitment in the final quarter of 2020 and hopefully have enough subjects ready to begin in the new year, he said.

"Given each study participant will participate in the study for one year, we expect the study to complete by the end of 2021 with final data available in early 2022. We do however anticipate that data will be available during the study with reviews of the data probably beginning when subjects have gone through the six-month mark," said Pimstone.

He said the idea is to find trends and other predictors that can be used to make informed decisions on the future of COVID-19 and any future pandemics.

“No one can solve the challenges around reopening workplaces on their own. We hope that the type of public-private partnership we are creating with this work can help create a framework for data-driven conversations with all the players at the table,” said Pimstone, who is one of the co-leads on the study.

Also working as co-leads in the study are Dr. Tania Bubela (Simon Fraser University), Dr. Josef Penninger (University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine), and Dr. Mel Krajden (BC Centre for Disease Control / Provincial Health Services Authority, University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine).


Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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