How the National Microbiology Laboratory tests for COVID-19

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How do we test for COVID-19 in Canada?

COVID-19 is an emerging infectious disease. Diagnostic testing is a key element in how we find cases, and prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Scientists at the Public Health Agency of Canada are working with provincial public health lab partners to explore and validate 3 ways of testing for COVID-19.

They are:

Molecular PCR testing is used to detect cases of COVID-19 in people infected with the virus.

Swabs are used to collect samples from the nose or throat, which are placed in a tube containing a liquid material that preserves the sample.

Molecular PCR is spelled out as Molecular Polymerase Chain Reaction. A swab is inserted into a person's nasal cavity and is then placed in a tube.

It is then sent to a lab.

At the lab, test kits that include reagents to strip away all materials except the genetic material, are used for each sample.

The sample is added to a test kit, which then shows a genetic sample being revealed. The letters "RNA" appear next to the genetic sample.

If COVID-19 genetic material is present, a machine will amplify it until it can be detected.

That type of test can:

Once the sample is received, results are ready in 1 to 3 days.

The second type of test, Point of Care testing, involves a rapid test done at the time and place of care, such as a hospital or doctor's office.

For molecular point of care tests, swabs are taken from the nose or throat. The swab is put into a fluid, which is placed in a testing device on site.

A woman is seated in a doctor's examination room. Swabs are taken from either the nose or the throat. The swab goes into a testing device nearby.

It detects the genetic material of the coronavirus.

Other types of point of care tests, including antibody tests, may also be approved for use.

This type of test:

It helps serve remote communities as it doesn't require transportation.

However, only a limited number of tests can be performed in a single device at one time.

The numbers 1 to 16 appear under the testing device, indicating the number of tests it can perform.

The third type of test, Serology testing, is a blood test that detects antibodies that the immune system produced in order to fight infections created by the virus.

The test can detect 2 types of antibodies:

Blood is drawn from a person's arm and the sample is tested in a serology testing machine.

The Serology test:

Several people appear on screen. Checkmarks appear over two, to show they are protected from future infections.

Once the samples are received at the lab, the results are ready in 1 to 3 days.

The challenge is that early detection of infections can be difficult, as antibodies can take several days to develop.

In Canada, the National Microbiology Laboratory is working with public health labs nationwide to speed up testing, conduct validation, and maintain quality control to ensure reliable results. Testing approaches will evolve as new information and technologies become available.

Canadians can have confidence that all methods of testing are being studied to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

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