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Out of the gloom, a portable COVID-19 test from Ottawa

Paul Lem, CEO of Spartan Bioscience, seen here several years ago with his company's DNA analyzer, is overseeing the effort to quickly develop a COVID-19 test kit.
Paul Lem, CEO of Spartan Bioscience, seen here several years ago with his company's DNA analyzer, is overseeing the effort to quickly develop a COVID-19 test kit.

For most of us, the COVID-19 virus has been a malevolent force, destroying jobs, wealth and social mobility. But for some, this new epoch is also an opportunity to draw on a lifetime of work to do good.

Paul Lem, the founder and chief executive of Spartan Bioscience, for one. A few weeks ago, he and his fellow scientists pivoted abruptly from ongoing projects to focus on what seems the perfect application for one of its technology platforms — a way of quickly determining who has contracted the COVID-19 virus.

“It’s terrible what’s happening around the world,” Lem said, “and we want to do our part to help solve this crisis.”

Lem said he expects within weeks to have a hand-held product capable of identifying the COVID-19 virus within 30 to 45 minutes, a speedy result made possible because the necessary analysis is done on-site. It does not have to go to a laboratory for processing, as is the case with most other DNA test technology. If the Spartan device works as expected, it would be ideal for use at border crossings, remote communities, physicians’ offices, among other venues.

What makes him believe he can do this, let alone so quickly?  Only that he has spent 14 years painstakingly building DNA test kits flexible enough to make this kind of transition. His Ottawa company has developed portable test technology for detecting the DNA of bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s Disease and also for studying the DNA in heart patients to determine whether they will reject certain blood thinners (Plavix, among others) because of a genetic mutation.

The mechanism for the proposed COVID-19 test kit is similar to that employed by other global firms — genetic material is extracted from a cheek swab and parts of it are amplified through a polymerase chain reaction. Spartan uses a technique called realtime or qPCR, in which data is collected throughout the PCR cycle.  The company’s core product, Spartan Cube, serves as a portable mini-lab that offers analysis of the swab on-site.

The reason Spartan and others are able to rush forward with COVID-19 testers is the sequence of the genome is already known, along with the dozens of proteins it produces. This makes it easier for companies to develop ways of at least detecting COVID-19.

The only question now is whether the Spartan Cube can process the genetic material in a manner acceptable to regulators such as the U.S. Centres for Disease Control or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which last month launched a research program to accelerate the development of COVID-19 tests and cures.

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“This is right in our wheelhouse,” said Lem, who has been talking with Canadian authorities. “I don’t see any technical challenges,” he added. Lem said if the development of the COVID-19 test device goes well, Spartan is set to produce 9,000 test cartridges per week using its own manufacturing facility in Ottawa, with the capacity to accelerate after that.  There’s a catch of course — gearing up production will require more capital. Just who would provide it isn’t clear.

The company, which employs about 70, had been in the midst of a marketing campaign to raise fresh equity aimed at helping Spartan complete its shift from a research outfit to a commercial firm selling products that have nothing to do with COVID-19. Raising money privately is certainly possible but can it be done quickly enough?  Given the government’s recent enthusiasm for spending to combat the effect of the virus, federal money is also a possibility.

Of course, dozens of other firms are ramping up production of COVID-19 test kits and concepts.  A prominent player is Kogen Biotech, the first South Korean firm to produce virus testing technology last month. This put it in the vanguard of an countrywide effort that led to drive-in testing centres across South Korea and the screening of more than 300,000 people for COVID-19.

According to Lem, the Kogen technology relies on final analysis being done in labs, a multi-day process. But because the testing started relatively early in the COVID-19 cycle, South Korea nevertheless managed to flatten the curve of infected people. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Korea as of Thursday afternoon was 8,565 — up roughly six per cent so far this week, compared with a near tripling in Germany, Spain and the U.S. and more than triple in Canada (to 761 confirmed cases)

Kogen is now exporting its virus test kits to more than 30 countries and has reached weekly production of 10,000.

Given the size of the COVID-19 pandemic — nearly 240,000 confirmed cases worldwide and growing rapidly — there is plenty of room for multiple suppliers using different techniques.

The hope now is that most of these devices work, and can be put in the hands of the people who administer the tests, as quickly as possible.  In the case of Spartan Bioscience, speedy and accurate tests would go some distance to helping this country flatten this alarming COVID-19 curve.

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