New Brunswick

N.B. company's quick-results COVID-19 test now in use, but not in New Brunswick

A Fredericton-based company says it has accurate diagnostic tests that provide quick results and are effective on both the original COVID-19 virus strain and all four known variants, but they aren't being used here in New Brunswick.

LuminUltra, which has federal contract to supply test chemicals, got approval for test in November

LuminUltra chair and CEO Pat Whalen says the company has a made-in-Canada COVID-19 test that's both accurate and fast. (LuminUltra)

A Fredericton-based company says it has accurate diagnostic tests that provide quick results and are effective on both the original COVID-19 virus strain and all four known variants – but they aren't being used here in New Brunswick.

LuminUltra has qPCR (quantitatitve polymerase chain reaction) test kits approved by Health Canada that provide results within two hours instead of up to two days, said company spokesperson Jessica Stutt.

By shortening that window, the LuminUltra test reduces the time people have to wait in self-isolation and eliminates the need for a followup confirmatory test, which may be required after a screening-only rapid test, Stutt said.

Stutt said the GeneCount COVID-19 RT-qPCR Assay Kits are already in use in some other provinces. 

However, they are not currently in use in New Brunswick.

Rotational workers in the province have called on the provincial government to offer rapid COVID-19 tests to reduce the time they have to spend self-isolating when they return home.

Asked at Tuesday's COVID-19 update why the province isn't using the made-in-New Brunswick tests, Dr. Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer of health, said the preferred "way ahead right now" is to rely on "the gold standard PCR" tests and having all travellers self-isolate for 14 days. '

LuminUltra's test is a PCR test, and Russell didn't get into detail about why she prefers the PCR test that takes longer to get results.

"That is the safest approach, dealing with variants, trying to get our most vulnerable population vaccinated … we have a lot of factors to consider," Russell said. "It is challenging, so that is our way ahead for the time being.

"But it is an evolving situation and things could definitely change."

Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health, has described PCR COVID-19 tests as the 'gold standard.' (Government of New Brunswick)

The province is also not relying heavily on the rapid COVID-19 tests it received from the federal government.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been urging the provinces to use the 20 million rapid tests sent out by Ottawa, and he discussed testing during his call with the premiers last week. Rapid test results take only about 15 minutes.

New Brunswick has used only 4.15 per cent of the 284,064 rapid COVID-19 tests it received from the federal government.  

Russell has repeatedly said the rapid tests are useful for screening, but they're not diagnostic.

"They are meant to be used for symptomatic people within five to seven days of the onset of their symptoms," she said at a COVID-19 update last week.

In addition, Russell said, if someone tests positive with a rapid antigen test, they require a followup PCR test to confirm.

But the results typically take up to two days.

Company has federal contract to provide testing chemicals

Talks with the federal government and various provincial governments, including New Brunswick, continue, Stutt said.

"We've been working closely with [the Public Health Agency of Canada] since March in providing the reagent components for the testing," said Stutt, referring to the company's year-long contract with the federal government to provide enough chemicals for 500,000 tests per week, "and in looking at our other options."

"So certainly since receiving [Health Canada] authorization, which is of course the big hurdle, we have been in conversation with PHAC about our additional options," she said.

We have the ability to fulfil large-scale contracts beginning immediately.- Jessica Stutt, LuminUltra spokesperson

CBC News has asked Health Canada for comment.

LuminUltra has also been in discussions with other potential users, such as hospital networks, said Stutt.

The New Brunswick Department of Health said it worked with LuminUltra during the first wave of the pandemic with respect to testing swabs and reagents.

The department "continues to discuss options and supports the development of public/private opportunities to expand testing capacity," spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said in an emailed statement.

He declined further comment.

The number of rapid tests the provinces have used as a percentage of their stockpiles. (Power & Politics/Darren Major, Emily Haws, Earvin Solitario)

100 per cent sensitivity

LuminUltra received Health Canada authorization to sell and distribute its COVID-19 test kits more than two months ago. The health agency's website lists the test's sensitivity as 100 per cent.

"This new product line gives governments and businesses across Canada the tools they need to deliver a high volume of the most accurate COVID-19 test results possible in under two hours," LuminUltra chair and CEO Pat Whalen said in a news release at the time.

"We are now able to expand our efforts in the fight against COVID-19 by providing accurate and fast testing solutions for both remote locations and high-capacity mobile labs."

LuminUltra offers portable manual devices, about the size of a toaster, that can be used where needed to assess up to 16 nasal swabs, as well as automated devices that can be used in a lab or mobile setting to process up to 96 samples per run.

Rather than collecting samples and shipping them to a centralized laboratory to be processed, LuminUltra's kits bring the testing capacity to "point of need," said Stutt.

"You could do the swab and have the machine to do the testing on right there," she said.

Demand for testing expected to rise with variants

The demand for COVID-19 testing is expected to increase as the more infectious variants first reported in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil take hold.

All three have been detected in Canada. New Brunswick has four confirmed cases of the variant first reported in the U.K. — one in the Moncton region, Zone 1, two in the Saint John region, Zone 2, and one in the Miramichi region, Zone 7.

The variants are up to 80 per cent more contagious and are expected to spread exponentially, New Brunswick infectious disease specialist and pandemic task force member Dr. Gordon Dow has said.

He predicts the variants will replace the strain of coronavirus that has caused most infections in Canada within three months, based on the experience of multiple jurisdictions around the world.

The GeneCount® Q-96 (left) can be used be used in a lab or mobile setting to process up to 96 nasal swabs, while the GeneCount® Q-16 can go where needed to assess up to 16 samples. (LuminUltra)

Capacity to produce tens of millions of tests per month

LuminUltra, which has about 140 full-time employees, is currently producing millions of tests per month and has the capacity to increase this to "tens of millions," according to Stutt.

"We have the ability to fulfil large-scale contracts beginning immediately," she said.

Stutt declined to discuss cost, saying only that LuminUltra is "definitely competitive with anything else in the qPCR market."

The company's devices can also test other samples for the presence of the coronavirus, including surfaces, air and wastewater.

In addition, the same instruments can be used to target common water- and food-borne pathogens, such as legionella, coliforms, algae, listeria and salmonella

LuminUltra has been in business for about 25 years, with operations in six countries and sales in more than 80 countries.

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story said, based on information provided by the company, that its kits also work on variants and suggested the tests would therefore not need to be sent to the Winnipeg National Microbiology Laboratory for screening. In fact, the tests do not identify specific variants
    Feb 18, 2021 6:48 PM AT

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now