Air Canada, Ottawa's Spartan Bioscience look to roll out rapid COVID-19 testing devices at airports

Paul Lem
Spartan Bioscience founder Paul Lem shows the Spartan Cube. File photo

An Ottawa-based biotech firm that’s developing a device designed to provide COVID-19 test results in as little as half an hour is working with Air Canada on a plan to roll out the technology in the aviation sector.

Canada’s flagship carrier said Tuesday it’s asked Ottawa’s Spartan Bioscience “to assess how best to employ” its portable testing device, called the Spartan Cube, to screen passengers and airline employees.

“Air Canada's strategy for managing COVID-19 has been to develop and apply multiple layers of biosafety measures for customers and employees,” Samuel Elfassy, the airline’s vice-president of safety, said in a statement.

“We believe the availability of a rapid, accurate, portable molecular test for COVID-19 will add yet another effective layer. We are excited by the potential and point of care use cases for the Spartan Cube, and look forward to working with the Spartan team in the weeks and months ahead.”

Airlines around the world have taken a financial beating in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis as international borders were closed to air travel and passengers stopped flying in droves due to the perceived risks of being infected with the novel coronavirus while on board crowded planes.

As a result, airlines are ramping up safety measures such as requiring passengers to wear masks and taking their temperature before they board flights. However, being able to confirm that no one aboard a plane has coronavirus could significantly help Air Canada – which, along with WestJet, faced significant backlash earlier this month when it announced it would stop blocking off adjacent seats – make travellers feel safer about flying.

Government orders

Spartan’s test involves inserting a cartridge containing a swab from a patient’s mouth into a machine about the size of a coffee cup that analyzes DNA for the presence of the coronavirus.

“Spartan is excited to explore how our fast, portable testing technology can help keep Air Canada employees and the travelling public safe as Canada's economy reopens,” chief revenue officer Nick Noreau said in a statement.

The company fielded a flurry of requests for its rapid-testing device when it first announced it was working on the technology earlier this spring. The federal government as well as the provinces of Ontario and Alberta agreed to buy millions of dollars’ worth of the testing devices and kits, which received Health Canada approval in April.

However, Spartan voluntarily recalled the test just a few weeks later after Health Canada expressed concern about the effectiveness of the plastic swabs used in the test. The company said it would recall the 5,500 tests shipped nationally and work on additional clinical studies to assess the sampling method and swab.

In early June, the company said in a statement it was “working around the clock with a team of experts” to fix the issue. Spartan said the experts had “identified a number of options and are working towards delivering a final solution” but has not provided any updates since. 

– With files from the Canadian Press