EDITOR’S NOTE: April 13, 2020 – Health Canada has now approved a new rapid test for COVID-19 from Spartan Bioscience. For more on that story click here.
Amid criticism about a lack of widespread testing for COVID-19, Ottawa and the provinces have turned to rapid testing kits to help reduce the test backlogs, and this could change how people are selected for quarantine when lockdowns are lifted.
Rapid testing kits will be important in keeping people safe when they return to work and borders re-open, infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said.
“Imagine quarantining people for as long as it takes for someone to pick up their luggage at an airport, where it’s either yes or no,” he said.
Furness, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said portable test kits are especially useful in rural or remote communities, where quick access to hospital or test assessment centres may not be possible.
“The general idea of trying to scale up capacity through rapid testing is an excellent thing,” he said.
Spartan Bioscience Inc., a small Ottawa-based company, is one solution that Ontario and Alberta governments have tapped to increase testing capacity.
The company’s device, the Spartan Cube, is a hand-held DNA analyzer that can provide COVID-19 test results in about 30 minutes.
The small grey box — about the size of a coffee can — uses a throat swab created by the company, which is then placed into a single-use cartridge and inserted into the device.
Most COVID-19 tests are done using a long nasopharyngeal swab which is inserted into the nose. Swabs are then sent to a hospital or public health lab, where they are processed in a large machine designed for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
A lack of swabs, testing chemicals and limited lab space have led to backlogs in some provinces and forced public health officials to limit who gets tested. This can be a major problem when health investigators are trying to determine where the virus is in order to isolate those cases.
Experts have warned Canada may be missing thousands of COVID-19 cases due to these limitations.
“I think everyone around the world has been caught a bit flat-footed,” said Paul Lem, founder and CEO of Spartan.
“That’s where we have a big advantage as a Canadian company. We actually manufacture the tests and cartridges in Ottawa so we are not subject to that global supply shortage.”
Several countries, like South Korea and Germany, have also banned the export of essential medical equipment and supplies. U.S. President Donald Trump banned the export of N95 masks made by 3M Co. to Canada last week.
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In the United States, Detroit began using new rapid testing kits for first responders, bus drivers and health-care workers to test for the new coronavirus.
The test, created by Illinois-based pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories, can produce results in about 15 minutes or less. The company hopes to ramp up production to the point where it can deliver 50,000 kits per day, per a release.
While there have been concerns with rapid testing in the U.K. and Spain, the Spartan cube uses an identical test that has been published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which has a 100-per cent accuracy rate according to Lem.
The Spartan test has not yet been approved by Health Canada, but Lem said they are in talks “almost everyday” and hope to get the final green light “very soon.” He hopes the test kits could be shipped in the coming weeks.
Ontario has ordered over 900,000 test kits, while Alberta Health Services has signed a $9.5-million contract for 250 handheld devices, along with 100,000 test kits.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that Canada is working on increasing testing, but didn’t provide a date on when these rapid test kits might be used by public health agencies.
“We recognise that large scale testing is a key element of flattening the curve and dealing with the long term prognosis of this of this pandemic,” Trudeau said during his daily briefing. “We will continue to deliver more and more testing kits from around the world, from companies in Canada that are developing them.
“We know there’s a need for more testing kits and that’s what we’re working on.”
Ontario has faced criticism for its sluggish testing of COVID-19. It continues to have the fewest tests on a per capita basis in Canada — 510 tests for every 100,000 residents. Alberta has done nearly 1,500 tests per 100,000 while B.C. has done 950 tests per 100,000.
Alison McGeer, director of the infectious diseases epidemiology research unit at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, said there is no one solution to a problem during a pandemic and Public Health Ontario’s lab system is working around the clock when it comes to testing.
In two weeks Ontario was able to clear a backlog of tests from over 10,000 down to just over 300.
Ontario could see 3,000 to 15,000 COVID-19 deaths
Canada’s chief medical officer Theresa Tam said Monday that the global supply chains can be “very difficult” during a pandemic, with countries fighting for the same material, and they are looking for more “made-in-Canada” solutions — like the Spartan test.
She said with limited resources, jurisdictions are focusing testing on vulnerable communities, health-care workers and small cluster detection.
“We want the supplies to be utilised in the most effective way possible,” she said. “That does mean testing in situations where you’re most likely to be finding the infection and in the most high risk situations.”
Last week, provincial health experts in Ontario say they expect COVID-19 could kill 3,000 to 15,000 people in the province over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, of which could last up to two years.
As of Monday morning, Canada has tested over 334,000 people with more than 15,800 cases and 290 deaths.
Experts who spoke with Global News last week say Canada needs to be putting more money towards testing and contact tracing, which involves retracing the steps of a COVID-19 patient and tracking down anyone who may have had contact with them.
“Given that we’ve got this ongoing community spread, we need to be testing aggressively and not just restricting it to those patients who are sick or health-care workers,” said Peter Phillips, a clinical professor specializing in infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia.
“If we don’t know where it is we can’t contain it.”