UPEI researchers aiming to develop mobile testing for COVID-19

If a team of UPEI researchers has its way, technology the group has developed will soon make it possible to test for COVID-19 outside of a lab. 

Research team awarded federal grant to adapt farm-animal testing technology to humans

Prof. Bill Whelan, left, and Prof. Andrew Trivett are leading the team of UPEI researchers, who are aiming to create mobile testing for human diseases like COVID-19. (Submitted by UPEI)

If a team of UPEI researchers has its way, technology the group has developed will soon make it possible to test for COVID-19 outside of a lab. 

The team initially developed the mobile technology to detect viruses in farm animals in a barn or field, without requiring pristine laboratory conditions. 

Now, the group — made up of researchers in various UPEI departments — has been awarded a federal grant to adapt that technology, so it's able to detect human diseases, like COVID-19. 

Bill Whelan, a physics professor at UPEI, said the technology is being used to study the viruses in pigs.

He said the more than $300,000 from Ottawa will then be used to adapt the technology to humans. 

The user of the technology would see right away whether the result is positive or negative.— Bill Whelan, UPEI

"So once we finish the research looking at the porcine (pig) coronaviruses then we'll be looking at testing on human coronaviruses,"  he said.

"We're looking at getting our hands on some non-virulent strains of coronaviruses that we could test here in Prince Edward Island at UPEI."

Whelan said after that, the team will work on acquiring and testing more harmful strains of coronavirus.

Portable Device

The grant, awarded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), is one of 96 funded by the federal government in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Whelan said the federal funds will help move the team's research forward and that once it's developed, it will be portable and easy to use.

He said the idea is for the technology to produce test results in under an hour.

"The results are transmitted directly to a smartphone or a mobile device," he said.

"And the user of the technology would see right away whether the result is positive or negative."

From trials to commercialization

The researchers have already created a company, Fieldetect Inc., that will work to commercialize the technology. 

"We've really taken a lot of care and looked at the design and the workflow of the technology so it could be used by someone with very minimal training," Whelan said.

"And we think that's one of the innovative aspects of the technology that we currently have."

Kathy Gottschall-Pass, UPEI's interim vice-president academic and research, says she's confident the university's research 'will have an impact around the world.' (CBC)

"COVID-19 is an unprecedented global public health risk," Kathy Gottschall-Pass, UPEI's interim vice-president academic and research, said in a news release. 

"We are thankful to CIHR for expanding this important funding to allow our interdisciplinary research and development team at UPEI to test this diagnostic technology that will have an impact around the world."  

Access to testing for COVID-19 has varied across the country. There have been challenges keeping up with demand, and providing results in a timely manner. 

To date on P.E.I., there have been two positive tests and 167 negative results, with 71 still pending. 

COVID-19: What you need to know

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call your local public health authority. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Be aware of evolving travel advisories to different regions.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

More COVID-19 stories from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Travis Kingdon


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