Before the pandemic, the chemicals and enzymes needed to develop RT-qPCR (reverse transcription quantitative polymerase chain reaction) test kits were manufactured outside of Canada. But with every country suddenly needing the same materials to track COVID-19, supply quickly became scarce. The NRC partnered with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and McGill University to strengthen Canada's capacity to create various test kits components domestically.
The first step was to produce the chemicals needed to make the buffer that is used to isolate viral RNA from clinical samples. To meet the rapid-testing needs of an entire nation, the NRC required several tonnes of one of the chemicals, but Canada's entire supply at the time was just 11 kilograms. PHAC helped procure the chemicals, then NRC volunteers went to work mixing and converting the different raw powders into a precisely formulated liquid form. In short order, they produced 56,000 litres of buffer—enough for 7 million test kits.
Next, the NRC team drew on its experience making microbial hosts and expression vectors (bacterial "factories" for producing proteins) to increase McGill's enzyme production capacity. Enzymes amplify a virus' genetic sequence so it can be detected by a test kit. NRC experts helped develop optimized production protocols so McGill could create 4 protein enzymes at industrial scale instead of in the tiny amounts needed for academic research. When one heat-sensitive enzyme proved challenging to produce, NRC researchers found an innovative, uniquely Canadian solution using bacteria from an Arctic fish.
The NRC's innovative science solutions have enabled new capacity at McGill—and will help Canada meet its testing needs for as long as COVID-19 lasts.
"This is not just for the current pandemic. This will also give Canada the infrastructure and resources to be in better position to deal with future pandemics because we now know how to do it. Now we can make the ingredients and we have the recipe."