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Op-ed: Manitoba must boost testing capacity

April 3, 2020 — 

The following is an op-ed originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press from Joanne Seiff and Jeffrey Marcus, biological sciences professor:

The rollout of Manitoba’s COVID-19 testing has been slow. So far, relatively few have been diagnosed with the virus. However, Manitoba has largely limited testing to those who’ve travelled, been in contact with someone who has travelled or already been diagnosed with COVID-19, and health-care workers.

Only those being referred by a Health Links nurse or another medical professional can get the test. If you’ve not travelled anywhere recently, aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized for a respiratory illness, and aren’t in any of the other eligible categories, you might have the virus and be walking around, infecting others without knowing it.

The World Health Organization recommends early widespread testing as a way to identify infected people. Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, indicated that the Cadham Laboratory has technicians working 24-7 to process tests as soon as possible. The implication here is that all the qualified technicians are working flat-out on all the available equipment.

Even so, with fewer than 1,000 tests processed each day in Manitoba, patients may wait days to get their test results. These delays in diagnosis and COVID-19 patient isolation will amplify the spread of the virus. If we wait too long, don’t test enough and fail to isolate infected people quickly, Manitoba will make the same mistakes that have been made in China, Iran, Italy, Spain and New York, with disastrous results.

To avoid this, Manitoba must immediately increase its speed and testing capacity. But what will happen when some of the technicians who are working 24-7 get sick and cannot do their jobs? Testing capacity, as it currently exists, would go down instead of up.

The University of Manitoba has already loaned equipment to extract RNA (ribonucleic acid, which is present in all living cells) to the National Microbiology Laboratory for its COVID-19 testing, but additional devices could be loaned to Cadham Laboratory. One PCR machine (thermal cycler) can run a maximum of about 400 samples a day of the type used for COVID-19 testing. Our provincial testing capacity is currently equivalent to the output of less than three machines.

Many life-sciences researchers in our province’s universities have these expensive pieces of equipment. These researchers use them on a regular basis for many experiments; it’s time now to call on these research labs, and ask them to loan their PCR machines to boost the province’s virus-testing capacity. This would drastically increase the number of tests that can be run at once.

Also, while the training for these professors, technicians and graduate students may not be exactly the same as that of the Cadham technicians, they have extensive experience running this specialized equipment safely and correctly.

Many have already collected disposable gloves, other personal protective equipment and appropriate research chemicals from their labs. These researchers have sent the necessary items to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the Public Health Agency of Canada, and if asked, many of Manitoba’s researchers would step forward again to be trained by the Cadham laboratory to do the specific COVID-19 testing protocol.

This would also boost testing capacity and reduce the time it takes to get test results.

More importantly, it would create a “second string” of qualified technicians who can step in to help if those on the front lines get sick with the virus. As our COVID-19 experience in Manitoba stretches from weeks into months, these highly trained PhDs and their students can create reagents, run the machines and offer the hard-working Cadham laboratory technicians some relief.

When this crisis abates, the PCR machines and the scientists who use them can all return to their university laboratories; but for now, there is a crucial component of Manitoba’s brain-power missing from this equation. Our health-care system is under siege. It’s only going to get worse. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary collaboration.

Tired front-line clinical professionals may not like asking their science colleagues for help… but now is the time to make this leap, before it is too late to make a difference. Once we have widespread community transmission, additional testing capacity will be of little help. Universities should immediately make inventories of the relevant equipment, qualified personnel ready to volunteer and reagent stocks. Then, these resources should be deployed as quickly as possible.

Those who suggest this isn’t feasible should look toward the examples of the University of Washington, University of California-Berkeley, University of North Carolina and others, who have already led the charge in COVID-19 testing in recent weeks. This isn’t just possible; it’s necessary.

It’s time for Dr. Roussin to ask for help. With most university labs shut down, our basic science researchers and their idle equipment await the call.


Jeffrey Marcus is a professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Manitoba. Joanne Seiff is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and the author of three books.


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