Saliva of dental students at U of Manitoba to be studied for COVID-19 risks

The saliva of some students and staff at the University of Manitoba will be examined as part of a national study on occupational risks associated with COVID-19.

The samples will come from students, faculty and support staff in dentistry and dental hygiene at the university, and nine other dental schools in Canada. They will be used investigate infection rates, transmission risks, and immune system responses of those working in dental clinics, laboratories, and offices in universities.

Examining how the virus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted in those types of setting will “help paint a picture about the level of risk for front-line oral health care workers in different clinical situations,” said Dr. Bob Schroth, a professor of preventive dental science at the U of M’s Dr. Gerald Niznick College of Dentistry.

University clinics, where students work directly with patients, have stringent infection-control measures. The research from the study will help make them even safer, said Schroth, who is heading up the Manitoba portion of the pan-Canadian study.

Dental and dental hygiene students and staff remain among the few groups on-site almost daily at universities and colleges across Canada.

While portions of their studies have gone virtual, “not everything that they will learn can be done online,” Schroth said.

“They actually need to come in and learn skills within the lab, those hands-on skills. And they also need to provide clinical care to patients.”

Their continued presence on campus, and the nature of the dental work itself, increases their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, says a news release from the federal COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, which is funding the study with $1.4 million.

“You’re sometimes working and the person’s head is almost literally in your lap,” Schroth said.

The 10 schools taking part are located in nine cities across seven provinces: Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

Hoping for 800 participants

Led by McGill University’s faculty of dentistry, the study hopes to recruit 800 volunteers to submit monthly samples of their saliva for analysis and complete a monthly online questionnaire.

Schroth is aiming to get 80 — 40 staff, 40 students — for the U of M portion of the study. He is still awaiting approval from the university’s ethics board to go ahead with the research. 

“Because this involves students, I think they want to just make sure that there’s a guarantee in place that students won’t feel pressured to take part,” Schroth said.

Once it is running, the monthly saliva samples will be tested for COVID-19. Anyone with a positive result will be asked for additional saliva samples and blood samples, which will then be tested for antibodies.

“We’ll be able to analyze whether differences in infection-control protocols among the clinics across Canada affect infection rates,” said Schroth.

“We’ll also investigate whether specific occupational roles and socio-demographic backgrounds put people working in university-operated clinics, labs and offices at higher risk of infection.”

The questionnaire will address participants’ socio-demographic, socio-economic and health status. It will also ask specific questions about the tasks they perform, the treatments they dispense, and the protective equipment and protocols they use.

The researchers will analyze the data every two months so that as findings emerge, dental schools can alter infection-control protocols if necessary.

Saliva ideal for detecting COVID-19

The samples will be collected locally then sent to the Salivary Proteomics Research Laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan’s college of dentistry. Unused samples will be stored in a biobank for future research use.

“Saliva is ideal for detecting active COVID-19 infections because it is easy to collect and transport,” Dr. Paul Allison of McGill University’s faculty of dentistry said in a news release.

“However, there remains a lot to be learned about how it can be used to detect an immune response in patients following infection or vaccination. Our study will provide useful information about the nature of immunity.”

Schroth noted it’s likely many students, faculty and staff will be immunized against COVID-19 before the end of the year, but said the research is still valuable because it will also assess the immune response of participants who have received a vaccination.

“From what we can see, this pandemic is not ending anytime soon,” he said.

The study will run until the end of 2021.