'A game-changer': How Spartan retooled its patented rapid DNA test to tackle COVID-19

Paul Lem
Spartan Bioscience co-founder Paul Lem displays the firm's patented device that has been approved for rapid COVID-19 testing. File photo

One year after the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in Canada, Dr. Jamie Spiegelman has come to understand the devastating impact of the disease all too well.

A physician in the critical-care department at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital, Spiegelman has been on the front lines in the battle against the virus almost from day one. Last week alone, he treated more than two dozen COVID-19 patients who were on life support.

But Spiegelman now has more reason for optimism after finding out last Friday that Health Canada has approved Spartan Bioscience’s rapid coronavirus test for emergency use.

“It really is a game-changer,” says Spiegelman, who co-founded the Ottawa-based biotech firm 15 years ago with Paul and John Lem and still sits on the company’s board of directors.

“I think this is going to be very important to reopen the economy in terms of companies and employees being confident that they’re safe at work. COVID-19 was a disease that none of us want, but the technology that Spartan developed is almost the perfect way of diagnosing it.” 

"COVID-19 was a disease that none of us want, but the technology that Spartan developed is almost the perfect way of diagnosing it."

A mini COVID test lab about the size of a coffee cup, the Spartan Cube is portable enough to be used in airports, schools and offices and can deliver results in about an hour as opposed to the days it usually takes for tests to come back from traditional labs. 

Now that it has the green light to go to market, Spartan is proceeding full steam ahead with production at contract manufacturer Sanmina’s Toronto-area plant, where it anticipates up to 250 jobs will be created as a result. 

CEO Roger Eacock, who replaced Paul Lem at the helm last fall, says the company expects to be churning out up to 200,000 test kits a week within a couple of months.

Based on advance sales to the federal government and provincial governments in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec as well as private-sector customers such as Air Canada, other airlines and companies in the resource sector, Eacock predicts Spartan’s revenues will top $200 million this year ​– and only rise from there.

After the company broke the news of Health Canada’s approval on Saturday, Eacock said Spartan’s sales staff fielded “several hundred” inquiries from potential customers eager to get their hands on the device. 

For now, he says, “Canada is our first and only priority.” But Spartan is already in the process of applying for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which it hopes to receive this spring. From there, Spartan will branch out into the global market, Eacock says.

“It’s really a question of how much we want to bite off and (in) what market sectors,” he explains.

Headcount doubled

As it starts scaling up in earnest, the firm is adding to its Ottawa headcount at a breakneck pace. Eacock says Spartan ​– which has doubled its local staff from 50 to about 100 employees in the past year ​– is hiring in all departments, from R&D to sales and marketing.

Spartan’s compelling narrative, he adds, gives it a decided edge over the multitude of competitors fighting to scoop the best and brightest talent from a limited pool.  

“Finding good people is always difficult, but it’s amazing the number of inquiries we had over the weekend from folks wanting to join Spartan,” he notes with a smile.

Still, it wasn’t always certain the story would turn out this way.

Friday’s news was the culmination of a topsy-turvy 11-month stretch for Spartan. The company originally got the green light to market the device last March, but voluntarily recalled the test a month later after Health Canada expressed concerns about its accuracy.

The crux of the issue was in the swabs that extract material for testing, says Spiegelman, who was not involved in the original design. Spartan’s original cheek swab, the same one it used for testing other illnesses such as legionnaires’ disease, wasn’t collecting enough of the virus to get a sufficiently accurate reading.

So the company’s scientists and engineers went back to work, spending the next several months refining the test.

The original plastic swabs were ditched in favour of the longer nasopharyngeal swabs commonly used at testing facilities across the country, which collect samples from the back of the nose and throat where the viral load is higher. 

The kits were also retooled so that the testing agents ​– which originally had to be cooled by liquid nitrogen to keep them frozen ​– could be stored at room temperature, making the tests much easier to transport and use in remote environments.

Now, Spiegelman says, Spartan’s test is the “gold standard” of accuracy, getting the results right more than 90 per cent of the time. In addition, he says it’s easy enough to administer that almost anyone can do it. 

Easily adaptable technology

“I’ve taught my 10-year-old daughter how to use it in 10 minutes,” Spiegelman says.

Spartan’s DNA analysis technology can also be readily adapted to test for other infectious diseases such as the flu and strep throat, he adds, as well as any emerging variants of COVID-19. And the firm’s R&D department is constantly tweaking the Cube’s patented algorithms to improve its accuracy, Spiegelman notes.

“If we need to adapt, we can adapt,” he says. “It’s just going to get better from where we are right now.”

It’s been a long road, but Eacock says he sees a smooth path to growth ahead. Money isn’t a problem, he explains, noting that existing partners recently injected a new round of capital while talks with other potential investors have been heating up.

“We’re literally having them line up right now wanting to help fund the business,” the CEO says.

As for Spiegelman, he couldn’t be happier – both as an investor and as a doctor who witnesses the toll that COVID-19 takes on patients and the health-care system every day.

“It has been a rollercoaster since March,” he says. “I think what we’ve proven in the last eight to nine months is that the company itself is very resilient.”