15,000 COVID-19 tests produced by McGill University and the RI-MUHC: a step towards Canadian self-sufficiency

Names in the pic (L to R -) from McGill University’s (CRBS) and the Research Institute of the MUHC (RI-MUHC). Dr. Marcel Behr, Suzanne Bechstadt PhD , Dr.Raymond Tellier, Maureen McKeague PhD, Don van Meyel PhD.
Names in the pic (L to R -) from McGill University’s (CRBS) and the Research Institute of the MUHC (RI-MUHC). Dr. Marcel Behr, Suzanne Bechstadt PhD , Dr.Raymond Tellier, Maureen McKeague PhD, Don van Meyel PhD.

In July 2020, the MUHC's Department of Clinical Laboratory Medicine received 15,000 screening tests manufactured in Quebec by a team of researchers from McGill University’s Centre de recherche en biologie structurale (CRBS) and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre  (RI-MUHC). This delivery is proof of the outstanding collaboration between the various groups of scientists who started working in March to develop a Canadian version of the test to detect the virus causing COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). The success of this initiative could one day provide enough domestic production to ensure that Canada has autonomy in its screening capacity - a key element of pandemic management.

Dr.  Gerasimos  J. Zaharatos  and Dr. Raymond Tellier of the Department of Clinical Laboratory Medicine are pleased to be able to use these "in-house" tests to detect COVID-19. "McGill’s researchers have been able to manufacture enough reagents to conduct 15,000 diagnostic tests that can be used right away. It’s quite a feat on the part of the researchers who within a few short months, managed to synthesize the mixture of enzymes, primers and probes needed to do the molecular test by reverse transcription and by polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)” says Dr. Raymond Tellier, who played a leading role as an advisor for the research teams of McGill University.

Martin Schmeing (PhD), CRBS Director, and Don Van Meyel (PhD), director of the Centre for Translational Biology at the RI-MUHC, are leading this project and they want this milestone to be a first step towards Canadian self-sufficiency. Everything is in place to move to an industrial production stage:  facilities, resources and know-how.

Once a swab sample is obtained from a patient, it is sent to the hospital’s Microbiology Laboratory for analysis. Testing such samples takes sophisticated instruments, expert laboratory technologists and testing kits made up of complex mixtures of reagents. "Currently, most components of RT-PCR screening kits are manufactured by multinationals, and global demand could potentially affect the supply chain and screening capabilities of several countries," explains van Meyel. “Decisions about who and when to test for the virus causing COVID-19 are crucial and should not be limited by the availability of screening kits or lack thereof.”

Dr. Gerasimos J. Zaharatos, chief of the MUHC's Division of Medical Microbiology, notes how the efforts of McGill’s researchers in the midst of the pandemic this spring have been truly remarkable and heartening.  “I have been so impressed by the passion, generosity and drive shown by our McGill colleagues,” says Dr. Zaharatos. “The delivery of these 15,000 tests is testimony to the fantastic potential for collaboration between McGill University researchers and our healthcare institutions. We know that we can count on their efforts, and I hope that their capacity to contribute will be recognized at the national and provincial level as we approach the start of the respiratory virus season."

CRBS scientists Maureen McKeague, PhD, assistant professor in McGill’s Departments of Pharmacology and Chemistry, and Susanne Bechstedt, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, make no secret of their pride in being able to participate in the development of these 15,000 tests. "We were really happy to be part of this project. The teams of the Department of Clinical Laboratory Medicine at the MUHC have been very helpful in the rapid validation of our work. We have received extraordinary support from them."  

This project was made possible through a partnership with the National Research Council of Canada and $150,000 in seed funding generously provided by donors of the McGill University Health Centre Foundation through the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4) and $50,000 from McGill’s Faculty of Science.

Additionally, the endeavour was supported  by Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions (CED). “CED’s support for the McGill University and MUHC has made it possible to respond to an urgent and significant need. The production of these 15,000 tests is the fruit of exceptional work done by McGill University researchers. They are among the many Canadians who are standing shoulder to shoulder making sacrifices to help limit the propagation of the virus, and we are very proud and thankful for this,” emphasizes the Honourable Mélanie Joly, Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages and Minister responsible for CED.

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