Spartan Bioscience 'lab-in-a-box' test kit finally cleared for COVID-19 battle"This is going to be a game-changer in making diagnoses and helping to open the economy."
Author of the article: James Bagnall
Publishing date: Jan 23, 2021 • 20 hours ago • 4 minute read
Dr. Paul Lem, co-founder and chief medical officer for Spartan Bioscience Inc. in Ottawa. PHOTO BY JULIE OLIVER /Postmedia
Assuming no further hiccups, Spartan looks to be on track to top $200 million in revenues this year based on government orders alone. Its technology is also well-suited for use by airlines and private businesses anticipating reopening. “We are still ramping up R&D because this is a huge and significant opportunity,” said Roger Eacock, Spartan’s CEO since October. “We have buyers already lined up,” he added in reference to private-sector customers.
Spartan Bioscience co-founder, Dr. Jamie Spiegelman, a senior staff doctor at Humber River Regional Hospital. Supplied PHOTO BY SPARTAN BIOSCIENCE INC. /Handout
Roger Eacock, the CEO of Spartan Bioscience. PHOTO BY SPARTAN BIOSCIENCE INC. /Handout
Eacock stressed that Spartan would fulfill its commitments to governments as a first priority, but added he believed there was enough flexibility in production to serve private-sector firms at the same time.
Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and the federal government last spring ordered nearly two million test cartridges and the Cube devices that process them — approaching $200 million worth of potential business with more to follow, all of it contingent on the performance of the initial samples and Health Canada approval. With this in hand, Spartan can start making good on those initial purchase orders.
In retrospect, Spartan pushed its technology faster than it should have, no doubt influenced by the intensity of the first wave of COVID-19 and the urgent need for portable tests. Quite simply, Spartan’s early method of collecting nasal samples didn’t pick up sufficient quantities of the virus for accurate tests.
Spiegelman, who has more than a passing interest in Spartan’s breakthrough, has some thoughts about that. He is a co-founder with Paul and John Lem and a board member. Spiegelman is also a physician at Humber River Regional Hospital in the epicentre of Toronto’s COVID-19 outbreak. That makes him desperate to get COVID-19 tests done quickly and accurately.
The physician said he was not consulted by the firm on the design of the initial test kit submitted for Health Canada’s inspection. Spiegelman knows the viral load is heaviest deep in the back of the throat, thus requiring lengthy nasal swabs for good samples, but Spartan early on submitted its shorter, proprietary swab as part of the package.
“It didn’t get big enough samples of the virus,” Spiegelman said. Not only that, he added, the test kit’s chemicals had to be kept frozen while in transit, thus introducing complications to the supply chain and making deliveries to remote regions more difficult.
The Spartan Bioscience rapid-testing device for COVID-19. PHOTO BY AHS
The good news was that Spartan’s DNA-analyzing technology was solid, so the company opted to remake the test kits to rely on longer, standard-issue swabs and a storage solution that worked at room temperature. It was a significant R&D effort.
The result is a product that does not require a lot of training to use and that can be adapted to testing future viruses.
“I taught my five-year-old daughter to use this in five minutes,” Spiegelman said.
While portable DNA analyzers are generally less accurate than lab-based technology, the efficacy of the Cube now seems well suited for the fight against COVID-19, which demands rapid results. Spiegelman said the clinical trials suggested a positive COVID-19 test result on the Cube is nearly certain to be accurate, while a negative result is 80 per cent to 90 per cent likely to be accurate.
If these kinds of results play out in the months to come, Spartan can afford to contemplate a future beyond one dominated by COVID-19. Because the Cube analyzes DNA, it could be adapted to test for other viruses.
Next time, however, you can be sure the company will be sure of its ground before engaging Health Canada’s regulators.