Students, faculty, and support staff in dentistry and dental hygiene at Canada’s 10 dental schools soon will be asked to contribute their saliva to a research study of COVID-19. Those who volunteer to participate will submit monthly samples of their saliva for analysis and complete a monthly online questionnaire. The study will run until the end of 2021.
Any participant who tests positive for COVID-19 will be asked to provide additional saliva samples so their immune response to the disease can be tested for a month post-infection.
“All of Canada’s 10 university dental schools operate clinics and labs because it’s essential for students in dentistry and dental hygiene to gain practice experience with real patients,” said Dr. Bob Schroth, professor of preventive dental science at the University of Manitoba Dr. Gerald Niznick College of Dentistry and of pediatrics/child health and community health sciences at the UM Max Rady College of Medicine.
Schroth, a dentist and clinician-scientist who also is a research with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, is the UM project lead for the study.
“Tracking the incidence of COVID-19 among students, faculty, and support staff while we’re providing oral healthcare in these university clinics will produce valuable data,” Schroth said.
“We’ll be able to analyze whether differences in infection-control protocols among the clinics across Canada affect infection rates. We’ll also investigate whether specific occupational roles and sociodemographic backgrounds put people working in university-operated clinics, labs, and offices at higher risk of infection,” Schroth said.
The study will be led by Dr. Paul Allison, professor of dentistry at McGill University. It received $1.4 million from the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, a body funded by the government of Canada that brings together university, hospital, and public health expertise to map the scope of coronavirus infection in the country.
Participants will receive self-testing kits that use a swab for collecting saliva. The samples will be collected locally and then sent to the Salivary Proteomics Research Laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan College of Dentistry. Sample material that remains unused will be stored in a salivary biobank for future research use.
Because the research team is conducting a similar study of COVID-19 infection rates among practicing Canadian dentists, the data from the dental schools can be compared with the results for community dentists. The researchers will analyze the data every two months so that as findings emerge, dental schools can act to change infection-control protocols if necessary.
Although it’s likely that many students, faculty, and staff will be vaccinated against COVID-19 before the end of the year, Schroth said the research is still valuable.
“From what we can see, this pandemic is not ending anytime soon,” he said. “The project team will gather additional data by assessing the immune response of participants who receive a vaccination.”
The project will start enrolling participants soon. Schroth hopes to see about 40 students and 40 clinical staff, including faculty, from the Dr. Gerald Niznick College of Dentistry and School of Dental Hygiene take part. Across Canada, about 800 participants are expected to enroll in the study.
“Our students, faculty, and staff know that our clinics have already implemented very stringent infection-control measures,” Schroth said.
“By participating in this study, they’ll contribute to research that will be used to make dental clinic working conditions even safer. The findings will also add to general knowledge about the disease and how it is transmitted in a frontline healthcare setting,” he said.