WATERLOO REGION — After weeks of social distancing, non-essential business closures and general unease about what the world will look like post-coronavirus, Ontario and other provinces have unveiled plans to slowly end the lockdown.
But many experts agree extensive testing of the public, supplemented by a system that can warn people if they have been in contact with those who test positive for the virus, is considered key to the safe reopening of the economy.
Several local companies are at the cutting edge of both strategies.
Brush, floss, swab
Imagine waking up one morning with a fever and a dry cough, two of the primary symptoms of COVID-19. Should you go to the doctor? The emergency room? Or just wait it out?
The uncertainty over who can get a test, when, and how long you have to wait for results can be confusing.
Now imagine walking into your bathroom, rubbing the inside of your cheek or nose with a test swab, placing that swab inside a small testing kit about the size of a deck of cards, and getting a positive or negative result within about 20 minutes.
The results can then be uploaded anonymously to a public health system database to enable monitoring and further action, including notifying others who may have been in contact with you.
Kitchener-based Serapis Labs is working to develop an at-home COVID-19 test that will deliver accurate results in about the same amount of time it takes to watch an episode of your favourite sitcom and for about the same price as a 24-pack of beer.
“What is extremely important is our testing format and our design that allows you to test yourself makes it possible to screen a large number of people very quickly,” said Kam Ghofrani.
He’s the founder of local tech company DropLab Inc. and one of a handful of Waterloo Region entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists that make up Serapis Labs, a new company launched in response to COVID-19.
The expanded testing capabilities promised by this new at-home kit would do more than give people the knowledge or peace of mind of whether or not they’re infected, Ghofrani said — it could become a critical tool for reopening the economy and even national or international borders.
Ghofrani said the kits could be deployed at airports or border crossings to help identify those who may be infected.
The other big advantage is it eliminates the most time-consuming portion of the entire testing process — the need to transport samples to a lab.
Similar test kits are already in development across the country after Innovative Solutions Canada, a federal innovation program, put out a challenge in early April for firms to develop testing kits that are easy to use, as accurate as lab-based testing, and cost less than $40.
“Such a device can facilitate diagnosis and care (particularly in remote areas), while expanding into non-traditional clinical environments or home settings, enabling the broadest potential response to this monumental crisis,” stated the Innovative Solutions Canada website.
The group of four full-time employees and three part-timers that make up Serapis Labs are working inside the Old Boehmer Box Factory in Kitchener.
“At first we thought it wasn’t possible,” admitted Ghofrani, but just a few weeks later they’ve developed a prototype and are now working with manufacturers to produce a small batch of the kits.
The units must be approved by Health Canada and Ghofrani said they hope to have it ready by August.
The government’s challenge required the kits to be disposed of after a single use; however the Serapis kit is being designed to also accept multiple testing cartridges in order to cut down on waste.
Ontario has been criticized for its slow response to the need for testing and contact tracing to slow the spread of the virus.
There are 100 assessment centres for ongoing testing of the general public in the province. Two are operating in Waterloo Region, in Cambridge and Waterloo. Sanguen Health Centre also runs a mobile clinic targeting the homeless and others who are hard to reach.
The government has developed an integrated laboratory system with Public Health Ontario, local health units, and hospital or community labs, with 23 labs working in coordination to increase capacity and test turnaround times for COVID-19, the province said.
Once test samples are received, labs are providing results within 24 to 48 hours. Results are available to patients through a user-friendly online portal.
Ontario says it is now exceeding 16,000 tests per day and more than 342,000 tests overall, but the number of actual daily tests has fluctuated in recent days to well below that 16,000 threshold.
Public Health Ontario lab locations include Toronto, Hamilton, London, Kingston and Ottawa. They operate seven days a week.
Several private labs in this region contacted by The Record said they didn’t have the equipment or expertise required to perform the testing.
The University of Waterloo, one of the top universities in the country, also doesn’t have the testing capabilities. Spokesperson Matthew Grant said UW conducted an “extensive review” along with public health authorities.
From ridesharing to contact tracing
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In the absence of widespread testing, several local groups are working on technology that they believe can do the next best thing — trace where an infected person has been, and who they may have been in contact with.
That could mean digitally tracking an individual through their smartphone or other wearable technology.
It’s a process called contact tracing, and Scarborough-based ridesharing company Facedrive Inc. has partnered with the University of Waterloo to develop a contact tracing app called TraceScan.
The program exchanges bluetooth signals between devices such as smartphones or wearables to detect if other TraceScan participants are nearby. If any of those users test positive for COVID-19, you’ll receive a notification, allowing you to take the necessary health precautions such as social isolation for two weeks, try to get tested, or monitor yourself for symptoms.
If a user is diagnosed with COVID-19, their TraceScan logs are sent to public health authorities to begin the tracing process. All logs are stored and encrypted locally on the user’s device.
The logs do not contain the individual’s phone number or other data, but are a set of cryptographically generated temporary IDs. The logs only leave the user’s device after they are COVID-19 positive.
“We realized early on we had the capability to take on this challenge, and we thought it was the right thing to do,” said Jay Wilgar, director and chief strategy officer of Facedrive Inc.
“One of the things that is difficult for ridesharing right now is the drop in ridership, so we could take some of our resources and put it toward an initiative like this that’s important for the community and the country.”
The virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days, and research suggests the average infected person could spread it to about two or three other people, making it more contagious than seasonal flu.
Slowing the spread and getting the transmission rate down to below one is critical to stop the pandemic, and contact tracing is one way of hitting that target.
On Monday, Premier Doug Ford called for a national strategy on contact tracing, calling it “absolutely critical” for moving forward.
But getting a sick person to accurately recall where they’ve been or who they’ve been in contact with in the few days that preceded their symptoms or a positive test result can be difficult. Contact tracing app developers believe they can help fill in those gaps.
In an email to The Record, Ontario’s Ministry of Health said it is “exploring the use of apps to increase the volume of contact tracing in Ontario, which would help contain the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”
Covid Watch, another University of Waterloo project, is working on similar bluetooth technology that syncs with digital devices such as smartphones, in partnership with tech giants Google and Apple.
James Petrie, head researcher and an expert in numerical modelling and machine learning, said if 56 per cent of a geographic region’s population adopts the voluntary app, that region can safely return to business as usual.
“Even if you don’t hit that level, (the technology) can still have an impact,” he said.
The nonprofit group of researchers, programmers, security experts and public health professionals are in the early stages of a few pilot projects, and Petrie said it was too early to say who their partners are on those projects.
They’re still at least several weeks away from making the technology more widely available. It would be free to download to your phone, and Petrie hopes to keep the cost of the wearables down to about $10 or less.
“I think contact tracing is very important,” said Petrie. “It’s the best solution I know of for targeting people who need to be self-isolating.”