TORONTO -- The COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) is launching a new study which will analyze blood samples from pregnant women across Canada in the hopes of not only providing a picture of the impact of the first wave of COVID-19, but also to get an idea of when the novel coronavirus entered the country.

The CITF will be providing $3.1 million to fund the project, which will track infection levels by looking for antibodies that demonstrate COVID-19 exposure within the samples taken from the women.

More than 95 per cent of pregnant women who proceed to delivery undergo screening to make sure there are no conditions that could affect the pregnancy, such as syphilis, HIV infection and other illnesses. This new study plans to start by analyzing 50,000 of the antenatal samples (blood samples extracted during the pregnancy) taken in this screening process.

Both real-time and archived samples will be used, and provincial and territorial labs will be working together to aggregate the results.

“Pregnant women represent the full diversity of Canada and, as such, are a valuable window on our nation,” Dr. Deborah Money, principal investigator of the study and a professor at the University of British Columbia, said in a press release.

One of the most interesting objectives of the study is to see if it is possible to pinpoint just when SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, crossed into Canada.

“The study will look at antenatal samples dating back to 2019 to identify the initial date that antibodies to novel coronavirus infection were first present in Canada,” collaborator Dr. Isabelle Boucoiran, a gynecologist-obstetrician and a member of the Infectious Diseases Committee of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, explained in the release.

The results from the blood samples analysis will be linked to anonymized demographic info, such as location and age, in order to provide a better picture of the COVID-19 spread in Canada. It could even inform on potential immunity among different populations, according to Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer.

“Improving our understanding of immunity among different populations, including pregnant women, will help us to track the spread and impact of the virus in the Canadian population,” she said in the press release. “It can also provide insights into the immune response which is key to ending this pandemic.”

One way in which this study could provide more information than the current COVID-19 testing across the country is that the widespread nature of the sample-taking means researchers may be able to find more information on how many people are completely asymptomatic, and thus would not have gone to get tested for COVID-19.

"Understanding where SARS-CoV-2 has been spreading in Canada using leftover samples from universal antenatal screening will enhance our knowledge about the extent of asymptomatic infections across the country,” Catherine Hankins, co-chair of the CITF and a professor at McGill University, said in the release.

The CITF was established in late April by the federal government in order to collect and run studies looking specifically at COVID-19 within Canada.