A key to controlling COVID-19 is testing

Editor’s Note: When this article was originally posted, one of the photo captions contained a serious error. Dr. Susanne Bechstedt and Dr. Maureen McKeague were not correctly identified as doctors in the photo caption. The Montrealer and the MUHC Foundation have now ensured that the caption is correct. We sincerely apologize to both Dr. Susanne Bechstedt and Dr. Maureen McKeague . – The Montrealer

To stop COVID-19, we must know who is infected. In Canada, testing is largely limited to people with symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever, dry cough, and fatigue. With worldwide demand for the chemical reagents required to test for COVID-19, few countries can implement larger-scale testing of people without symptoms. Widespread testing can help us slow transmission by identifying those who have the virus so they can isolate themselves to avoid infecting others. This strategy, however, is impossible if shortages of testing reagents arise. During the spike of cases in the spring, we were mere days away from not having key reagents to perform tests, in part because they are produced internationally and must be imported.

Dr. Don van Meyel

Dr. Don van Meyel, Director of the Centre for Translational Biology (CTB) at the Research Institute of the MUHC

A team of Montreal scientists are changing this.

Dr. Martin Schmeing, Director of the Centre de recherche en biologie structurale (CRBS) at McGill University and Dr. Don van Meyel, Director of the Centre for Translational Biology (CTB) at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) are leading a team of CRBS scientists to produce COVID-19 tests in their labs in Montreal.

The test uses a procedure called reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) to detect the virus in samples, usually taken by a nasal swab. “There are no made-in-Canada RT-PCR tests,” says Dr. Schmeing. “They’re mainly being made by multi-nationals and could be diverted away from Canada. So we want to help by making these tests domestically and making it possible for Canadians – including health care workers, students and everyday Canadians – to be tested on a larger scale.”

Back in March, when initial shortages of COVID-19 tests came to light, the scientists realized that they had the expertise and equipment to produce all the chemicals required to test for COVID-19.

“This is a unique specialization with the right people at the right time trying to make a difference,” says Dr. van Meyel.

“Scientists developed a COVID-19 test in two months”

Two months later, the scientists had a COVID-19 test. This incredibly fast solution was made possible by $150,000 in seed funding, generously provided by donors to the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Foundation through the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4), and $50,000 from the McGill Faculty of Science.

The seed funding helped the scientists create their COVID-19 test, as well as develop the protocols that will be required to allow them to scale up to produce millions of tests.

“This is not a brand-new test,” says Dr. Schmeing. “This is a Canadian version of the gold standard.”

Last month, the Canadian-made test was verified by Canada’s National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.

MUHC Covid-19

Members of the project team deliver testing kits to the RI-MUHC (L to R): Dr. Marcel Behr, Dr. Susanne Bechstedt, Dr. Raymond Tellier, Dr. Maureen McKeague and Dr. Don van Meyel

“We feel that decisions about who and when to test in Canada should be driven by strong science and public health policy, not by limitations in the number of tests available” says Dr. van Meyel.

This made-in-Canada solution is one of 40 research projects and clinical trials being conducted by MI4. Founded in 2017, this group of over 250 scientists are working to solve humanity’s deadliest puzzles—antibiotic resistance and infectious diseases like COVID-19. To date, the MUHC Foundation and its donors have contributed over $4.6 million to fund projects including development of coronavirus treatments, the search for genetic reasons why some people become gravely ill, vaccine creation, and more.

Projects like the one led by Dr. Schmeing and Dr. van Meyel demonstrate the importance of investing in medical innovation. In a matter of months, this initiative could provide hospitals across the country with enough chemical reagents to test anyone or everyone for COVID-19. Understanding that millions of tests would be needed, the researchers developed a scalable process from the beginning, though they did not yet know who would fund it.

“This is not just for the current pandemic,” says Dr. Schmeing. “This will also give Canada the infrastructure and resources to be in better position to deal with future pandemics because we now know how to do it. Now we can make the ingredients, and we have the recipe. The test is versatile and can help Canada respond quickly to other novel challenges to the health of Canadians.”

Thanks to the ingenuity of this team of Montreal scientists, Canada’s testing strategy can be strong and self-sufficient for this pandemic and the next.

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