Nov. 4, 2020

UCalgary lab helps support timely COVID-19 test results for international travellers

Lab provides unique service to Albertans and policy-makers
Dr. Khan is leading the pilot to provide timely COVID-19 test results for international travellers.
Dr. Khan is leading the pilot to provide timely COVID-19 test results for international travellers. Kelly Johnston, Cumming School of Medicine

When international travellers choose to take a COVID-19 test at the Coutts border crossing and Calgary International Airport, the samples will be analyzed at the University of Calgary. The pilot project, initiated by the Governments of Canada and Alberta, will safely test an alternative to the current 14-day quarantine requirement for international travellers while continuing to protect Canadians from COVID-19.

Alberta Health Services, Alberta Precision Laboratories and UCalgary are partnering to supply timely test information. People who test negative for COVID-19 will then be allowed to leave their place of quarantine provided they commit to following specific public health measures up to day 14 and getting a second test on day six or seven after arrival.

“This innovative project keeps health and safety as the top priority while testing new approaches to the 14-day quarantine,” says Minister of Health Tyler Shandro. “This pilot will help us collect critical data while keeping stringent measures in place to protect Albertans from COVID-19 exposure.”

The Hematology Translational Lab (HTL) at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) received accreditation from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta a few years ago to provide clinical lab support, and will use two different methods to test for the virus. A molecular test for COVID-19 was developed at the university, a method that involves sequencing the virus, which will provide extensive data in positive cases for future research.

“Our lab received accreditation to assist with clinical-grade molecular profiling of hematological cancers; it is a unique designation for a lab at a research intensive university,” says Dr. Faisal Khan, PhD, director of the HTL, who is pictured above. “With the pandemic, we saw an opportunity to use this lab to serve our community and work with Alberta Health Services and Alberta Precision Laboratories in a new way.”

“UCalgary is uniquely positioned to partner on this project,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “Our expertise and technology, provided by Dr. Khan and his lab, will advance our understanding and support Alberta’s recovery plan.”

The lab has been expanded to accommodate this work. Ribonucleic acid (RNA) extraction, a crucial first step in analyzing a sample, will take place in a newly assigned area. With the two methods of testing, the lab will be able to analyze 600 samples per day. That number can easily be scaled up, as needed. Once the COVID-19 pilot is over, anonymized viral sequencing data from positive samples could be studied to reveal critical information about the virus.

“The sequencing method targets 98 different regions of the virus, providing valuable information on viral genomics,” says Khan. “With that data we can learn about different strains of the virus. This can help inform policy-makers, in Alberta, Canada, and throughout the world.”

HTL has been providing genetic sequencing information for myeloid malignancies, engraftment assessment for bone marrow transplant patients, and cytokine assessment for immunity profiling to AHS and APL, which helps physicians determine the best treatment options for patients — work which will continue during this pilot program to test for COVID-19 samples.

Faisal Khan is an associate professor in the departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Paediatrics, and a member of Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute and Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is the Barb Ibbotson Chair in Pediatric Hematology.

Photo by Kelly Johnston, Cumming School of Medicine

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