Quirks & Quarks

Scientists are mobilizing from the ground up and the top down in our fight against COVID-19

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor says our bottleneck in our testing is due to not enough personnel and test ingredients, but that help is on the way.

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor discusses the bottlenecks in our testing, and how to get past them

Katie Kempton, a laboratory technologist at LifeLabs, demonstrates one of the steps taken when a specimen is tested for COVID-19 at the company's lab, in Surrey, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
Listen22:17

As we struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists across Canada are stepping up to help. 

In particular testing has been an issue. "Testing labs are completely overwhelmed and their personnel are so busy that they're going to need academics, for example, who are not on the front lines to help train and get people into place," said Tara Moriarty in conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

Moriarty, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Toronto, launched a grassroots campaign to get scientists organized and mobilize them so they can be ready to help when the call comes. 

Initially, Moriarty was trying to recruit scientists with advanced skills who could help pitch in with the testing, but she quickly realized many other skills would also be extremely useful. 

Tara Moriarity, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of Toronto, and her students. (Tara Moriarity)

"We've become sort of a general place where people with science skills or health professional skills are contacting us ...  to sign up."

She said the "absolutely extraordinary" response she's gotten so far was enough to bring her to tears. 

"It's everything from undergrads, to professor emeriti, sales people who work in biotech, people who work in startups, web developers who have nothing to do with this in many ways, who've come on board to help us do this," added Moriarty.

Federal level scientific response to COVID-19

Mona Nemer, Canada's Chief Science Advisor, said our current bottlenecks to ramping our COVID-19 testing are mainly due to human resources' issues, and getting enough ingredients to do the genetic tests that can detect the virus.

"Presently, we're doing over 10,000 tests a day and they vary from province to province. I would say that we probably need to be doubling, if not tripling, that number," said Nemer in an interview with Bob McDonald.

Canada's Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Without realistic numbers of how many people are actually infected, our ability to contain the spread will be severely compromised. Nemer said we need to be testing more people for the presence of the virus, but also to do a second kind of testing — a test for antibodies to see who's immune and could potentially help out on the front lines. 

"The testing is very important because it's going to give us the needed data and that is, I think, at the heart of this fight against the virus," said Nemer.

She added that everyone is working very hard to get us through the testing bottlenecks, but she expects we're going to be in a position "soon" to substantially increase our ability to detect the virus, and should also have an antibody test ready "shortly."

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting

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