Innovation Saskatchewan is responsible for implementing the province’s innovation priorities and helping grow Saskatchewan’s tech sector. Effective April 2022, this includes operation of the Innovation Place technology parks in Saskatoon and Regina.

Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory Critical to Fight Against COVID-19

The team at Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory (RRPL), an Innovation Place tenant in Regina, has been on the frontlines in the fight against the coronavirus since December when it was first reported. RRPL gained the ability to do confirmatory testing for COVID-19 in late March, speeding up results for physicians and individuals in the province and at its peak processing between 800-1,000 tests per day. RRPL was recently found to be the second most effective facility in Canada at detecting COVID-19 out of the 17 facilities in 9 provinces that participated in a recent study by the Journal of Clinical Virology.

We reached out to Dr. Jessica Minion, medical microbiologist at RRPL, to find out more about the impact and challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the evolution of the virus in Saskatchewan and the ever-changing lab technology that’s helping fight the battle.

RRPL has an impressive list of services (not to mention an impressive building!), and can be a bit intimidating for those not in the public health or health tech world. Can you break down what RRPL does and how it helps serve the province, especially during a public health crises?

RRPL has several core functions spanning from food safety to disease prevention to training and education to policy development and beyond. Some highlights of routine work at RRPL include the following:

  • Testing, surveillance, and typing of infectious diseases of public health concern (i.e. notifiable diseases)
  • Population level screening (e.g. maternal screening, newborn screening, colorectal screening)
  • Environmental health and protection (e.g. water quality testing, radon level testing, mosquito surveillance for west nile virus)
  • Work at the Genetic Resource Centre, including DNA banking and genetic testing for inherited conditions
  • Other reference and specialized testing

However, emergency preparedness is also a core function of a public health laboratory. RRPL maintains, plans and trains to support a laboratory response to events ranging from foodborne outbreaks to bioterrorist attacks to infectious disease pandemics. RRPL is also a member of national and international public health laboratory networks that collaboratively work to develop response plans, actively monitor potential public health threats both locally and globally and share information rapidly when a threat is identified.

An example of this type of collaboration, as soon as the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, now commonly referred to as the coronavirus, was shared by researchers in China on January 12, labs in the Canadian Public Health Laboratory Network began working on developing tests to detect it. As a result, by January 25 our National Microbiology Laboratory was able to confirm the first case of COVID-19 in Canada. The ability to detect and confirm the virus was then distributed through the network of provincial public health laboratories, who subsequently were able to build additional capacity within their jurisdictions.

In late March, RRPL gained the ability to do confirmatory testing for COVID-19. What impact did this have on the province for combating COVID-19?

During a fast-moving outbreak, timely information is critical. Test results are used to direct the public health response of contact tracing, which is the primary way we can get ahead of an infectious disease and slow it down. Being able to test and confirm COVID-19 results within the province helped give more time to our public health partners as they tracked down and controlled sources of transmission in the province.

How has that process and work load evolved as the pandemic continues and we’re, theoretically, flattening the curve? How many tests has RRPL conducted?

At the very beginning there were only about 10-20 tests per day, and these were done in our molecular section along with the rest of their routine work. However, by late March testing volumes rapidly sky rocketed, peaking at over 1,000 tests per day.

When test volumes started to climb, the entire laboratory moved into action. Staff who worked in other areas of the lab dropped what they were doing and came to help. Those with previous training in molecular testing picked up pipettes and quickly refreshed their memories to maximize use of extraction and PCR equipment; others formed something of an assembly line to receive and accession specimens as they came in, prepared them for testing, and sent out reports. In total, as of June 11, RRPL has conducted 34,191 COVID-19 tests.

What are some other significant public health crises RRPL has experienced before and what was RRPL’s role during them? How are these similar and how do they differ from the experience during the coronavirus?

During the last pandemic in 2009 when influenza H1N1 circulated, RRPL (then Saskatchewan Disease Control Laboratory, or SDCL) played a similar role to rapidly bring in diagnostic tests to detect the new virus and lead laboratory surveillance activities. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the scope, size, and severity have all been more significant and thus the importance of speed and responsiveness has been greater.

Additionally, pandemic preparedness plans have traditionally focused on influenza and make assumptions about how the world will respond regarding diagnostics, treatment and vaccines. While the response to the COVID-19 pandemic shares some similarities to an influenza pandemic response, other aspects are different and we’ve needed to adapt.

Lastly, let’s talk technology. Specifically, how have testing procedures evolved since the last big public health emergency? Are there advancements now that created a more robust approach to testing during the coronavirus pandemic?

Technology is constantly changing in the diagnostic lab environment. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that Chinese researchers were able to rapidly perform sequencing of the viral genome direct from a patient specimen, before they were even able to isolate it in culture, gave us all a head start in test development. When we needed to ramp up molecular testing in the province, the fact that so many routine microbiology tests have moved to molecular methods in recent years means that we had a greater surge capacity both for equipment and trained technologists.

There are also now commercial testing options available, which have the ability to decrease hands-on technologist time and can be run by individuals with less specialized skills in molecular testing. This includes some molecular tests that are appropriate for point of care testing outside of a formal lab setting.

For more information, visit the RRPL website.

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- July 6, 2020