Health Canada approves new rapid COVID-testing kits

Health Canada has approved a new rapid test for COVID-19 that can produce results in under an hour, which is expected to alleviate the pressure on public health laboratories and help circumvent testing kit shortages.

Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience received approval on the weekend and will be ready to start shipping tests for the federal and provincial governments as early as Monday, said Paul Lem, the company’s chief executive officer.

The company has contracts to produce rapid COVID-19 tests for the federal government, as well as Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. Other provinces are also working on arrangements with the company, but they haven’t been announced yet, Dr. Lem said.

Until now, all COVID-19 tests have been processed through large polymerase chain reaction machines. But Spartan’s test is processed through a handheld DNA analyzer, which allows hospitals and other institutions to test patients and receive results without having to send samples away to a provincial lab.

This will be particularly important for rural and remote areas, as well as Indigenous communities, which don’t have access to large PCR machines. They’ll be able to get results much faster and expedite their response to new COVID-19 cases, Dr. Lem said.

“If you live outside a major city like Toronto or Montreal … this is what you’re going to have to use,” he said.

Each handheld DNA analyzer can process about 10 to 15 tests a day, Dr. Lem said.

Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, said this new point-of-care test could be an important help to communities outside of urban areas.

“There’s going to be much greater penetration into the more rural areas,” Dr. Woodgett said.

He said the speed of test results is also important, as most COVID-19 cases are now the result of community spread and it’s important to ensure as many people with infections are being quickly identified and told to isolate.

The company will start shipping thousands of tests this week. In about a month, Dr. Lem said he expects they will be able to ship 10,000 tests a week. In three to four months, they expect to move 100,000 to 200,000 each week.

Another advantage to the Spartan test is the company produces the swabs that need to be used to collect samples from patients. Global swab shortages have been one of the many hurdles provinces have faced in scaling up testing across the country.

Ontario, which has had the lowest testing rates in the country for weeks, has come under increasing scrutiny. Last week, Premier Doug Ford said the testing rates, which were as low as around 2,500 last week, are “unacceptable” and vowed to ramp up the volume in the coming days and weeks.

Dr. Lem said Spartan Bioscience has been inundated with requests for tests in recent days. Private companies across Canada have reached out to secure tests. They want access to the tests so they can potentially screen employees for COVID-19 and allow non-infected individuals to return to work. Surgeons from Canadian hospitals have also reached out, Dr. Lem said. Many of them have had surgeries cancelled for weeks and they are hoping the test can help them get back to work.

Governments from around the world are also asking Spartan Bioscience to supply them with tests. “We’re bombarded,” Dr. Lem said.

But he said he is prioritizing contracts with Canadian governments and that his company won’t think about working with others until it can scale up the operations to meet the demands in this country first.

“We’re deliberately not taking any orders outside of Canada even though we’re bombarded with orders,” Dr. Lem said.