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Coronavirus: Canadian health authorities prepare to increase COVID-19 lab testing

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Health authorities are working to ramp up Canada’s capacity to conduct laboratory testing for the novel coronavirus with the goal of enabling some hospitals to diagnose patients.

When infections first began to appear in Canada in January, all provinces had to send presumed COVID-19 test samples to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg for confirmation.

Since then, Canada has seen 33 COVID-19 cases, most of them in Ontario and British Columbia. As the tally climbed, the two most affected provinces stepped up their screening efforts, and their public health labs have stopped sending samples to Winnipeg.

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Vanessa Allen, chief of medical microbiology at the Public Health Ontario Laboratory, said the national lab’s corroboration provided an “added layer of confidence” as researchers across the globe worked to establish testing protocols for the emerging virus.

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But with the benefit of more evidence and experience, Allen said the provincial lab’s procedures have evolved to become faster and more sensitive.

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Soon, the provincial lab system will have the ability to test roughly 1,000 samples per day, and the turnaround time to get results has been cut from 24 hours to six.

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Allen said the lab is considering ways to further streamline the testing process without compromising accuracy.

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“I think there’s a lot of shifts that are at the lab that are parallel to what is going on in other parts of public health response,” Allen said. “It’s an intense effort that requires constant re-evaluation.”

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Currently, scientists at the Public Health Ontario Laboratory are working around the clock to test the influx of specimens being sent by health-care facilities across the province.

Eventually, Allen expects the lab will shift its focus from performing tests to helping hospitals conduct their own.

Jerome Leis, medical director of infection prevention and control at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said the Toronto hospital is working to validate its laboratory testing procedures to ensure they produce the same results as the provincial laboratory.

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Leis said it’s vital that Canada bolster local lab capacity for testing before a major outbreak hits.

He said Canada needs to look no further than its southern neighbour to see the perils of relying on a handful of labs to test a whole country.

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The count of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has risen precipitously in recent days, including Washington state, where 10 people have died. Leis said the Centers for Disease Control’s lagging rollout of tests may partly be to blame.

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Leis warns that it may not be long before the demand for testing in Canada exceeds the ability of public health labs to keep up. And without timely detection of where COVID-19 cases are cropping up, we won’t be able to predict where the disease is headed.

“We want to be ahead of this and not just reacting to an emergent situation,” he said. “The existing lab capacity that we have right now is insufficient to be able to have the amount of surveillance that we need.”