The Unsung Heroes behind the Made-In-Canada COVID-19 Lab Test

Accurate and timely testing is an essential part of Canada's response to control the spread of COVID-19. When someone tests positive for COVID-19, they self-isolate to limit further spread and the contact tracing process begins to identify other individuals who may have been exposed. This process helps to protect not only the individual but also their family and their community so that everyone can follow public health recommendations. In the absence of an authorized vaccine, testing and contact tracing are some of our most powerful public health tools to limit the spread of the virus.

Having access to the necessary laboratory supplies is a fundamental first step in the testing process. In the early days of the pandemic while COVID-19 cases surged, the global supply of laboratory equipment needed to conduct testing rapidly diminished. When Canada's first wave of COVID-19 hit in March, the demand for testing significantly outpaced laboratory supplies. This was a new virus needing new tests to be developed and distributed urgently.

It quickly became apparent that we needed a "made in Canada" solution to address global shortages and develop a domestic supply chain. This was especially true for reagents - the chemicals needed to extract the genetic material from samples to identify the virus.

A Team Effort

The National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) is a key player in Canada's response to emerging infectious diseases, such as COVID-19. The NML has highly skilled scientists who can quickly diagnose unknown viruses and tackle the world's most severe outbreaks under the most challenging situations. During the early days of COVID-19, Canadians needed the NML's expertise to develop the laboratory tests to identify the virus and help control its spread.

Multiple teams came together at the NML to contribute their expertise to help develop the laboratory chemicals needed to diagnose COVID-19.

National Microbiology Laboratory's Master Inventor

One of the NML's former diagnosticians, Allen Grolla, has been at the forefront of battling outbreaks for 18 years. Throughout his career, he was deployed 16 times to run on-site laboratory tests for the world's most dangerous infectious diseases including Marburg virus, hemorrhagic fever and Ebola virus disease. Known as the "MacGyver" of the NML, Allen is an experienced problem solver and inventor.

Allen had just retired and was enjoying his first month of a well-deserved rest when his phone rang in March. On the other end was the Executive Director of the NML with a request to return to the lab as quickly as possible to use his expertise to help the team develop reagents for COVID-19 testing to curb the shortages.

"Although it was a challenging time for everyone, I was more than happy to come back to the lab and contribute to the well being of Canadians," said Allen Grolla, former NML diagnostician. "Having worked on many outbreaks throughout my career I understood that time was of the essence. We needed to take immediate action to scale up our laboratory capacity as quickly as possible."

Answering the call to action

Allen returned to the lab and working alongside his other teammates quickly learned how to replicate different buffer systems to create a reagent that public health labs across the country could use to test for COVID-19. While Allen was mixing different recipes of COVID reagents, another group of NML experts, responsible for validating laboratory tests to confirm they meet laboratory gold standards, were running verification tests to see if the mixtures worked. From there, the NML team worked tirelessly with LuminUltra Technologies Ltd., a New Brunswick-based company to ensure the reagent could be mass-produced.

"Before retirement, I worked inside of the NML's L4 laboratory. Having to develop COVID-19 reagents was something different from my regular skillsets and experiences of day to day work in the lab," explained Allen Grolla. "I remember anxiously waiting to see if the NML-formulated reagent worked. It was a very challenging time, but I am proud to have been a part of our lab's response to COVID-19 and help out the team."

Helping to meet national demand

Thanks to their careful calibrations, the reagent works and accurately detects the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. On April 10, LuminUltra Technologies Ltd. distributed the first batch of NML-formulated reagents to public health labs across the country. They quickly ramped up to full capacity producing enough reagents for 500,000 tests a week. This ready supply of reagents has helped Canada in our efforts to create our own supply chain as global shortages of these important chemicals are still challenging.

"Multiple teams of the NML came together, working side-by-side to help protect the health of Canadians," explains Kym Antonation, Chief of the Bioforensic Assay Development and Diagnostics team at the NML. "From a scientific point of view, it was a very exciting time as we worked seamlessly together, pulling on our individual expertise to serve the greater good. I am very proud of the work that our team did during that time."

Allen has since passed the baton back to his NML colleagues and is back in retirement. The NML team continues to provide critical scientific leadership for Canada's response to COVID-19 and assisting the provinces and territories in providing testing across the country.