On Friday, Dr. Robert Strang announced that there was a backlog of PCR COVID-19 tests waiting to be processed. The lab was behind by about 45,000 tests, or three day’s worth.
“We’re asking for everybody’s patience in this situation,” said Strang during the Friday COVID briefing with Premier Iain Rankin.
Staff at the microbiology lab are working around the clock to get back on track. In the meantime, those looking for an asymptomatic test are asked to go to the pop-up testing sites which use rapid tests and leave the PCR tests at the Primary Assessment Centres for those who really need them.
Dr. Strang said for the short-term the lab is maxed out, having hit its capacity limit, but scientists at Dalhousie University say they may be able to help with that.
“There’s a number of labs that we have the capacity to conduct the PCR reactions in order to test for the presence of COVID-19,” said Dr. Paola Marignani, a scientist and professor with Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Medicine.
Marignani says currently her lab uses PCR technology to screen for cancers and there are several other labs that also use PCR technology.
“In one day my lab can do about 1,000 to 1,4000 [COVID PCR tests], but if you take a few other scientists and their labs we could probably process up to 5,000 samples a day in our labs, so this is huge.”
With their current equipment, it’s just the final screening stage they’d be able to help with. The initial steps that include extracting samples would still need to be done at the microbiology lab, but Marignani said it’s screening for the PCR reaction that can slow things down.
“It’s not a two-minute test, the whole set up, there’s a lag time depending on what protocols are being used,” she said.
“It could be an hour, two hours or a three-hour reaction.”
In addition to helping with the PCR screening process, Marignani says Dalhousie could also provide staffing for the microbiology labs if that’s an issue.
“We could contribute some of our personal and our trainees could move into the microbiology labs to build in capacity on that end,” she said.
Those working in the microbiology lab say they haven’t received any offers of help during this wave, but also note that there is a lot that goes into being able to do this type of testing.
A statement from Dr. Tim Mailman says, “clinical testing requires accredited laboratories with licensed, certified staff performing validated testing under strict quality control parameters.
“Patient specimens must be registered and tracked in a secure information system that can communicate result and protect patient privacy.”
The statement goes on to say that they are “unaware of any laboratory based at Dalhousie meeting these criteria,” and that “there are also no scientists in the Faculty of Medicine who have trained the medical microbiologists or clinical microbiologists overseeing the COVID-19 testing.”
“The Central Zone Microbiology team is made up of international experts in molecular diagnostics related to COVID-19. Their work has been cited by the World Health Organization,” he said.
However, Mailman says they are open to hearing from faculty members who have a plan to do thousands of tests.
Marignani says she understands there are concerns with quality control and patient privacy, but notes that these are things they are accustomed to working with.
As for training to screen for COVID-19, she says while they haven’t done that yet, PCR technology is pretty standard, and it’s a matter of learning what “COVID tags” to look for rather than the current “cancer tags” her team is currently using.
“If it’s a question of accreditation, we’re ready to do that, ” said Marignani.
“This is what we’re known for, biomedical research. We can do this.”
Marignani says a group of scientists from Dalhousie did offer to help during the first wave but never heard back. After hearing about the current backlog in the system, she says they will once again be reaching out to offer their support with testing efforts in any way they can.
“Ultimately, the goal is the health and safety of Nova Scotians. This is what we all want.”