Kanata-made saliva collection kits will boost COVID-testing efforts, DNA Genotek says

DNA Genotek test
Kanata-based DNA Genotek has received Health Canada approval for its device that collects saliva used in COVID-19 tests. Photo courtesy DNA Genotek

With governments ramping up COVID-19 testing in priority settings such as airports, schools and essential workplaces as more infectious variants of the virus emerge in Canada, a Kanata company says its newly approved device used in saliva-based tests could pave the way for a faster reopening of the economy.

DNA Genotek announced this week that Health Canada has given the green light to its saliva collection kit for emergency use. Diagnostic labs and public health authorities now have access to the device for COVID-19 testing.

Company officials say the system could make it easier to detect coronavirus infections, especially in children and others unable to tolerate a nasopharyngeal swab.

“Aside from just being unpleasant, you can’t do that at home,” DNA Genotek executive vice-president Kathleen Weber said of the nasal tests in which a long, flexible swab is inserted deep into the nostril. 

"We believe that there’s a great need to expand testing, and these non-invasive sample collection methods that our products enable can do that."

“It has to be done in a professional setting. We believe that there’s a great need to expand testing, and these non-invasive sample collection methods that our products enable can do that.”

While not as accurate as the gold-standard nasopharyngeal method, saliva collection is easier, meaning this approach could capture infections in people who otherwise would not be tested but should be, Dr. Vanessa Allen, Public Health Ontario's chief of microbiology and laboratory science, said in an interview with the Canadian Press last fall.

Engineers at DNA Genotek’s Kanata R&D office designed the device, which is comprised of a small collection tube with a small funnel at the top. The vial is already used by companies such as 23andMe for consumer DNA testing.

The COVID-19 kit was tested by researchers at The Ottawa Hospital and University of Ottawa in conjunction with the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. 

A study last year led by cancer surgeon Dr. Stephanie Johnson-Obaseki used the device to collect saliva and nasopharyngeal samples from 1,939 people who visited the Ottawa hospital with either mild or no symptoms of COVID-19.

Johnson-Obaseki said 34 people tested positive with both methods, but 22 tested positive with the swab test alone and 14 tested positive with the spit test alone. The results were published last August in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The device is not an at-home saliva test that generates an immediate result. Rather, it collects samples for lab-based tests that use the same molecular analysis to detect novel coronavirus in a nasopharyngeal sample.

Essentially, the only difference is the type of specimen being collected.

In that regard, the sample is no easier or quicker to analyze because it requires essentially the same trained lab personnel, machinery and chemicals used for traditional methods. But Weber says DNA Genotek’s device makes testing much more convenient and will help take some of the pressure off assessment centres where resources are already stretched thin. 

Approved in U.S. and Europe

“We can really expand testing,” she said. “That is one of the keys to reopening the economy. This creates an opportunity to do that.”

The kit is already approved for COVID-19 testing in the U.S. and the European Union. Weber said the company is working to roll out the devices to labs and public-health agencies across Canada as quickly as possible.

Founded in 1998, DNA Genotek was acquired by U.S.-based OraSure Technologies in 2011. Since then, the company has grown from 70 to 180 employees, and Weber anticipates the firm to hire at least another 20 people this year as it continues to enhance its technology.

She said the saliva testing kit is a testament to the ingenuity of the National Capital Region’s workforce.

“Ottawa has a great talent pool,” Weber said. “It’s becoming a mini biotech bubble, and I think it is because of the quality of labour and resources that are there.”

– With files from the Canadian Press