Nova Scotia

N.S. research company develops antibody test for COVID-19

The co-founder of a Halifax-based medical research company, MedMira, has developed what it claims to be a faster antibody test for COVID-19.

MedMira co-founder says test is faster, simpler than similar tests

A Halifax-based research company has developed a COVID-19 antibody test. (Zuleika Chan)

A Halifax-based research company has developed a COVID-19 antibody test.

MedMira hopes to be able to market it to countries ready to begin surveillance programs to find out how widespread infections are within their borders.

The company developed one of the first rapid detection kits for HIV.

Other Canadian companies are already making similar tests and selling them abroad.

Hermes Chan, the company's co-founder, said his company is counting on two things to help it beat its competitors — speed and ease of operation.

"From taking a drop of blood specimen to complete one single test, it will take less than three minutes," said Chan.

Similar to pregnancy test

According to Chan, other tests can take 15-20 minutes to complete and some need a reader to interpret the results.

MedMira's process, which is similar to a pregnancy test, registers a positive or negative result on the testing device itself.

Chan said lab technicians could also perform multiple tests simultaneously, rather than having to perform them one at a time.

"Essentially you can line up 15-20 test cartridges," he said.

Creating the test has been lightning fast.

Hermes Chan is the co-founder of MedMira. (MedMira)

Chan said he started thinking about how to adapt the company's HIV-detection device to be able to find COVID-19 antibodies just six weeks ago.

"The only different thing in there is the type of antigens that we place on our test cartridge," he said. "Everything else is the same and that's why we can actually develop this particular test in such a fast time."

Company targeting U.S.

Some countries have started to test for antibodies, or are planning to do so, but Health Canada has not approved that kind of testing in Canada.

That is one of the reasons Chan is looking to the U.S. as an initial market.

He said his Dartmouth facility could easily create thousands of ready-to-ship units in short order

"Today, I will say that, without any further expansion, we are looking at about 50,000 tests a week, so about 200,000 a month," he said. "With some additional equipment and expansions, we probably can double that."

People generate antibodies to defend themselves when infected by a virus.  Being able to determine if a person has developed antibodies to a virus would tell if they were once infected and had developed immunity.

Dr. Todd Hachette (Dr. Todd Hachette)

According to Dr. Todd Hachette, chief of the division of microbiology at the Nova Scotia Health Authority, that kind of information would be valuable to better understand how COVID-19 has spread throughout Nova Scotia. 

It could be of more practical use in subsequent waves of the virus.

"Theoretically, if we knew that the test was predictive of someone who is immune and not going to get the infection again, you could prioritize or triage health-care workers," said Hachette.

There's also another possible use further down the line, he said.

"If and when we develop a vaccine we will be able to see how many people have been infected and help triage those who have been infected or those who have not been infected yet to get the vaccine first."

'Too early to know'

Hachette was happy to hear a homegrown company had developed an antibody test, but remained cautious about the overall value.

"I think it's great that Nova Scotia companies are developing the capacity to produce different tests that could be of use," he said.

"But at this point it's too early to know where these tests can be used, and more importantly we need to make sure that the tests being produced, not only in Nova Scotia, but in all of the other regions across the world, actually work."

Chan is confident his test works. Even though his company hasn't turned a profit in at least five years, he said he wasn't looking at this simply as a way to make money.

"Certainly we will sell the product at a reasonable market price," he said.  "We are not looking to benefit from such a horrible crisis, pandemic crisis."

MedMira will still have to deal with regulatory hurdles wherever it tries to sell the product. It is not approved for sale in any jurisdiction.