Queen’s-KHSC team develop in-house COVID-19 test

News / General / Research

Researchers from Kingston Health Sciences Centre and Queen’s University have developed an in-house Coronavirus test that increases testing capacity and provides faster results.

Testing is key to managing the coronavirus pandemic.  Yet the costs of testing, the volume of people needing to be tested versus availability of tests, and waiting time for results, have challenged health care systems worldwide.

Anticipating these difficulties, in the early days of the pandemic a team of researchers from Queen’s University and Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) partnered with Public Health Ontario Laboratories and Hamilton Health Sciences to develop an in-house test that could be completed in large volumes by redeployed and retrained technologists and produce results in 24 hours. The test has since been licensed by the Ontario Ministry of Health. 

Normally, it would take six months to prepare for a new lab test, but the local lab staff made it happen in just a couple of weeks. 

“We wanted to be up and running with a test for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) as soon as possible because we knew other labs were having supply issues with commercial tests,” says Prameet Sheth, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at Queen’s  and Director of Microbiology at KHSC. 

“We decided to create our own test so that reagent shortages would not be a major hurdle in our testing capacity. The second consideration was that the cost of a lab-developed test is about a tenth of that of commercial platforms.”

While all tests for coronavirus have the same principle of detection, each targets a different part of the virus.  For example, the test the team developed does not actually detect the virus itself, but it identifies genetic information of the virus. 

How is this done? Nasal swab samples from tested individuals are analyzed for any presence of the coronavirus’s genetic material, using a technique known as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

PCR allows for a particular piece of DNA to be targeted and copied many, many times. Eventually, the genetic sequence is amplified so much that it can be detected by specialized laboratory equipment at KHSC. But if the COVID-19 sequence is not present in the sample, nothing would get duplicated, so the test result would be negative.

Once samples are ready, it takes 3-4 hours to complete the process and results are reported as soon as they are available. This has allowed more tests to be completed (from a few per day to 400 per day) in the Kingston region, and it has enabled Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health to inform tested patients of outcomes within two days. 

The result is more tests and faster results at a fraction of the cost. The team’s testing technique has been shared with other laboratories across Ontario through a provincial diagnostic network.

Established by Ontario Health, the network includes all Ontario laboratories undertaking COVID-19 testing to ensure all labs can meet capacity and testing requirements and work together to manage needs.  The group meets daily, seven days a week, to share laboratory data, problem-solve, and generate ideas.   

“Laboratories have never seen the volume of testing that has been pouring in as a result of the pandemic,” says Lewis Tomalty, Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine

and Service Chief, Clinical Microbiology at KHSC.  “Early on, a number of the large labs (e.g. Public Health Ontario Laboratories) that would normally be the primary providers of such testing became overwhelmed and turnaround times started to suffer.  The goal of the network is to ensure the ability to  offload from labs that were at overcapacity to other labs that had the ability to take on more volume.” 

This partnership means that all laboratories are able to provide COVID-19 results in reasonable timeframes, and immediately react and re-direct specimens if a laboratory goes down (e.g. equipment malfunction or supply limitations).  

The Queen’s and KHSC team will continue to monitor the virus and will adapt the test if the virus changes over time, which is something they do each year for Influenza.