Ontario lab pioneering new COVID-19 test method calls for all positive samples to be checked for variants

Click to play video: 'Toronto lab pivots resources to test for COVID-19 variants' Toronto lab pivots resources to test for COVID-19 variants
WATCH: A Toronto research lab has pivoted their resources and is now using their platform to test for COVID-19 variants. – Feb 4, 2021

Scientists at a research lab in Toronto are calling for every positive case of COVID-19 to be tested for variants.

Brad Wouters, executive vice-president of science and research at University Health Network, said failing to do this will only make getting the pandemic under control more difficult.

“The window is closing, we know there is community spread,” Wouters said.

To find a variant, positive cases of COVID-19 are run through a second sequencing process to get a closer look at the genetic code. The challenge is that this process typically takes awhile to complete.

But researchers said a technology used at a research lab in Toronto can speed things up.

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Read more: Coronavirus: Toronto researchers say ‘window is closing’ to get COVID-19 U.K. variant under control

“We need a different approach to go after and find them, find every single one of them, and respond to it. That’s where this technology comes in,” said Wouters.

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The technology developed at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Sinai Health System, was not originally intended for COVID-19, but senior investigator Jeff Wrana realized the platform they were using could be pivoted to detect variants with speed and accuracy.

“It’s kind of like you are reading Lord of the Rings and you want to find out what did Frodo do with the ring,” Wrana said. “You just focus on the one chapter where Frodo throws the ring into the fire.”

Read more: Experts warned of new COVID-19 variants. Why did Ottawa wait for stricter travel rules?

The bottom line is researchers can quickly zero in on the genetic code to see if a variant of concern is present.
Because the process is faster, more samples can be tested, more variants can be found, and those results can get back to public health officials faster than traditional sequencing currently being used.

“You concentrate the problem down to sequencing just a handful of strains, just a handful of samples instead of trying to sequence thousands of samples,” said Wrana.

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This process was used to detect the first positive case of the N501Y.V2, which was first discovered in South Africa, last week. Wouters said that alone demonstrates the importance and urgency of rolling out the technology on a larger scale. “This is a technology that can be ported out,” Wouters said. “[It] can be applied in other parts of Ontario, applied in other parts of Canada, and really around the world.”

Read more: Tam warns of coronavirus variants as new cases emerge across Canada

Wouters said even though overall case numbers might be going down, it is possible for variant spread to be increasing in the background. That is why he believes more testing is needed.

“We have two options: we can go out and find them now, and put additional measures in place to stop those variants,” Wouters said, “…or we can wait until the variants take over, and force society into an even stronger lockdown than we are in now.”

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