Ottawa company hopes to develop mobile COVID-19 test in 4 weeks

An Ottawa company hopes a new technology it's creating allows people to quickly and accurately test whether they've contracted COVID-19 —without clogging up nearby hospitals or assessment centres.

"We're planning to release this within weeks with Health Canada approval," said Paul Lem, CEO and founder of Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience. 

"We're putting our whole company on this."

His company specializes in creating portable DNA tests that can be used at home. 

A few weeks ago, the company became inundated with requests to create a similar test for the novel coronavirus, Lem said.

On Friday, Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, said the government would leverage its purchasing power to ensure Canadian innovations "get to the market faster."

He said the federal government has signed a letter of intent with Spartan Bioscience, which Ottawa believes could alleviate some of the pressures the country faces. 

"And if successful, its diagnostic platform and COVID-19 test could be used in airports and in clinics," he said. 

"The test could read the test result, potentially, within 30 minutes."

CBC News

Needs to ensure accuracy 

Lem said a lack of testing capacity has made headlines across the world, which told his team that a need existed.

For the next few weeks, the company will be using positive samples of novel coronavirus to ensure they can test for the virus's genetic material accurately.  

The test involves two mouth swabs users rub across their inner cheek before inserting them into a small machine, plugged into a computer. A fluorescent light turns on if the genetic sequence of novel coronavirus is detected. 

"Here at Spartan, we're using the CDC's published recipe for detecting COVID-19," Lem said.

Supplied by Spartan Bioscience

"They've already validated specific genetic sequences that are specific for just COVID-19 and not all the other coronavirus and other viruses."

The CEO said the manufacturing needs are essentially the same for many of the tests that Spartan Bioscience already prepares. The company also uses a local supply chain, Lem said, meaning they're not facing a shortage of swabs affecting health care professionals elsewhere.   

The real hurdle his company faces is ensuring it has enough funds to ramp up production. 

He hopes to have the test ready for public use in approximately four weeks. 

Seeking investment

"That's why we're now talking to the [federal] government and also with private investors. How do we get that capital? How do we get the purchase orders?" he said.

"We're talking about a major ramp up to get to hundreds of thousands of test kits each week and thousands of devices."

Lem said Bioscience is also looking to buy more robotic manufacturing equipment, to ramp up production further. 

"With the discussions we're having with the government, it looks like the government will be coordinating the purchasing of these devices and then disseminating them across the country," he said.

Lem said that if Ottawa backs the company, it's likely the devices would be distributed to pharmacies, schools, airports and doctor's offices. 

"I think we're going to pull together as a company and this could be our moment to really help Canada."