This box could return COVID-19 test results in 30 minutes — and it's made by Ottawa company Spartan Bioscience

This box could return COVID-19 test results in 30 minutes — and it's made by Ottawa company Spartan Bioscience

The Ottawa-based company tapped by several governments to produce COVID-19 rapid tests is working day and night to meet their large orders.

Spartan Bioscience has primarily developed products that range from contaminated water tests to the world’s smallest DNA test. Some of its customers include the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the New York State Department of Health and the Mayo Clinic. 

Now, everyone at the 70-person company is focusing on developing a rapid test for the novel coronavirus which causes the deadly COVID-19 disease. They are expected to be ready in a few weeks.

So far, the province of Ontario has ordered 900,000 of the company’s COVID-19 tests, while the province of Alberta will pay $10-million for 250 portable DNA analyzers and 100,000 tests.

“We have been spending millions and millions of dollars in the last week and a half to ramp up our supply chain,” the company’s CEO Paul Lem told Yahoo Canada.

They are aiming to have their first shipment of product out in the next few weeks, and then manufacture millions of tests in the next 12 months.

Lem described the current energy at his company as “absolutely insane” since “we know that every day matters.”

“We’re looking to ship out product as quick as humanly possible,” he says.

For the past 14 years, Spartan Bioscience has been focused on developing a portable DNA analyzer, which turned out to be well suited for something like the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Right now with testing, the central labs are being overwhelmed because people have to collect a swab, ship it off to a lab, then wait days to get the results back,” says Lem.

In contrast, the company’s analyzer is about the size of a coffee cup. Once a swab has been collected, it’s put in a test cartridge and then a box, and results are available within 30 minutes. 

Lem says the CDC has published the recipe for a COVID-19 test on portable analyzers, so now the company is porting over the CDC test onto their device. They’re hoping to expedite approvals from the Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada so that the product can be launched commercially in the next few weeks. 

Lem explains that DNA testing works like a blood glucose metre. The device has a test strip, which tests for whatever specific thing you’re looking for. Once a sample is taken from the mouth or back of the nose, it’s placed in the single-use cartridge, which is then inserted into a box. Thirty minutes later, it displays results.

The company is in need of financing and purchase orders, and is working with the government to get that capital in place. They’re also looking to work with private investors to fund the company to scale. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that the government is working with Spartan Bioscience and two other companies to ramp up supplies for essential medical services, including tests for COVID-19.

“We anticipate (the tests) will be available through the government, they’ll give us purchase orders and then help us disseminate our tests across the country,” Lem said. “We want to do our best in the fight against COVID-19.”

This story was updated on March 31, 2020.