'Enhanced testing' in N.W.T. could deliver COVID-19 results in less than an hour

The territory is investing in new testing technology that could deliver rapid results — but it will likely take more than a month to arrive.

Territory expects testing to be up and running in 4-6 weeks

A health-care worker collects a sample at a drive-through COVID-19 testing facility in Alberta. The Northwest Territories is investing in new COVID-19 testing technology that could deliver rapid results — but the technology will likely take more than a month to arrive. (Alberta Health Services)

The Northwest Territories is investing in new COVID-19 testing technology that could deliver rapid results — but the technology will likely take more than a month to arrive.

According to Dr. Sarah Cook, the N.W.T.'s territorial medical director, health authorities have ordered two new types of testing technology that can deliver COVID-19 test results in under an hour.

One, called GeneXpert, can analyze the molecules in a nasal swab in under 45 minutes, according to a release from Cepheid, the company that produces the system. The FDA granted it "emergency approval" as a COVID-19 test last month.

Because of its complexity, Cook said, it can only be deployed in the labs of Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife.

The other, called the Spartan Cube, bills itself as "the world's smallest DNA analyzer," and is designed to be used "in non-laboratory settings such as airports, cruise ships, military bases, and other critical points of entry," according to its website.

Cook said it's likely to be distributed to hospitals and health centres in Fort Smith, Inuvik and Hay River, as well as Yellowknife.

A technician uses the GeneXpert testing machine at Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit. Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife has ordered a GeneXpert system to test for COVID-19, according to the territorial medical director. (CBC)

Spartan Bioscience, the Ottawa-based company that produces the Spartan Cube, says it's still "exploring how to perform the [COVID-19] test on its platform," but it has signed agreements to produce the tests for Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

Founder Paul Lem told the Ottawa Business Journal in late March he expected a COVID-19 test to be ready "within weeks."

Cook said the new equipment should arrive in the next four to six weeks, and when it does, it's expected to make a big difference to the territory's testing time.

Current tests sent to Alberta

Currently, tests from the N.W.T. are sent to labs in Alberta, leading to delays of three days or more.

"There's a delay from transport, and there's a delay because of the backup in the lab in Alberta," Cook explained.

With this new equipment, she said, health authorities will get a much better understanding of the spread of COVID-19 in the territory.

A man holds the Spartan Cube, which the company describes as 'the world's smallest DNA analyzer.' (Spartan Bioscience/Facebook)

"It's going to help us … understand where we are on the curve, in real time, rather than a lag of three to four days," she said.

Rapid testing becomes essential in the event of community spread — the transmission of COVID-19 between individuals in the N.W.T. To date, all cases of COVID-19 in the territory have been related to travel.

Cook said "it would be ideal" if physical distancing kept community spread at bay until the territory's testing improves.

But, she cautioned that "community spread could happen anytime. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen in a few weeks.

"It's impossible to say."

With files from Walter Strong


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