St. Paul’s Hospital has acquired a new automated COVID-19 testing machine – the first of its kind in Canada – which carries the ability to test hundreds of swabs at once, and help lift the heavy load off virologists.
The machine, called the Roche cobas 6800 system, was purchased by the Vancouver-based hospital in late March after receiving approval from Health Canada. The machine is traditionally used for HIV, hepatitis B and cytomegalovirus viral load testing.
In order to confirm someone is carrying the novel coronavirus, health officials take a nasopharyngeal swab, which is then sent to a laboratory to be tested. In most instances, these tests are being looked at manually by virologists and lab staff.
But Dr. Marc Romney, the medical director of microbiology and virology department at St, Paul’s, said with the help of the Roche 6800, dozens of swabs are able to be tested at once – with the potential of testing 1,000 samples in a 24-hour period.
“It’s a high throughput instrument which can test 96 samples per run,” Romney told Black Press Media. “Ninety-two can be patient samples, while the rest are done for quality assurance.”
Currently, B.C. health officials have focused testing efforts on current clusters and outbreaks, specifically within care homes which house elderly people most at-risk of seeing adverse impacts if they contract the virus.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said that officials are regularly reviewing testing protocols and will adapt as necessary.
Still, roughly 56,142 tests have been conducted across B.C. as of April 11, according to data from the BC Centre for Disease Control. Romney said that translates to an all hands on deck approach in the lab.
“Virology technologists are a rare breed in B.C. and Canada,” he said. “The Roche can do an overnight run and allows us to test 24 hours [a day].”
To know if someone has COVID-19, multi-step tests are conducted to look for any of the virus within the RNA (ribonucleic acid) of the collected swab. RNA carries the genetic information of the virus.
A piece of this testing includes using what scientists call the polymerase chain reaction method, which involves rapidly making billions of copies of a specific DNA sample – in this case the swab sample – in order to amplify it to a large enough scale to study it in detail and detect the virus.
With the new machine, “a very complicated and relative manual process has been converted into something that’s essentially fully automated,” Romney said, adding that the Roche uses PCR technology which “incorporates viral nucleic acid extraction, purification, amplification, and detection in a single instrument.”
In addition to the Roche 6800, swabs are still being manually tested by virologists and other staff within the department who have stepped up to help during the pandemic.
“The goal is to do more testing, that is our focus,” Romney said.