Interview with a molecular biologist developing a super Covid-19 test
“The precision of PCR with the convenience of speed”: a Q&A session with a molecular biologist developing a super Covid-19 test
” We are close. This test is in months, not years”
Molecular biologist Yousef Haj-Ahmad left his teaching position at Brock University in 2013 to focus full-time on Norgen Biotek, a manufacturing and research company that develops tests that can be used to detect n anything from chlamydia to, yes, Covid-19. The Ontario government recently invested $1 million in the company’s current mission: developing Covid-19 test kits that aim to combine the accuracy of a PCR test with the convenience of an antigen test. quick. Haj-Ahmad says this new product could help us crush this pandemic as well as fight – sigh – pandemics of the future.
Your business has just received $1 million in funding from the Ontario government. What are you gonna do with that?
Government investment will go to research and development. We are working on creating a new type of rapid PCR that would be a huge step forward in diagnostics. But it will be part of a larger $14 million expansion that will include new office and manufacturing facilities, which we will fund using profits from the past two years.
You have certainly found yourself in an area that is in high demand. How did you start molecular diagnostic testing?
I am a molecular biologist with a particular interest in virology. Prior to founding Norgen Biotek, I was a professor at Brock University for almost 30 years. During this time, I often took paid projects – a colleague asked me to isolate DNA from a cytoplasm or something like that. I kept taking on more and more work, and at some point decided it made sense to have a lab independent of the university. At the same time, I looked around me at the changes taking place in the world: the human population is increasing, we are building in areas where humans did not live, which means more exposure to animals, and we are traveling widely. All of this means that we will regularly face outbreaks of pathogens. In that sense, the diagnostics were low hanging fruit, but try to tell potential investors that. I couldn’t get venture capital – I had to borrow against my house instead. If you say you’re going to cure breast cancer, people will line up to write a check; but RNA isolation, DNA isolation – the investment community just didn’t think that was a big deal.
Well, you showed them.
It’s true, a lot of what we do has become very relevant during the pandemic. As a molecular biologist, I had a good idea very early on that Covid-19 was going to wreak havoc all over the world. We started expanding our production facilities in February 2020 to manufacture Covid-19 test kits. The virus was new, but the technology involved in PCR testing is the same whether you’re testing for chlamydia or Covid, so it wasn’t a big deal in that regard. And certainly there was demand. We had a big market in the United States, but also in South America, Europe, Asia. Our production has increased from 10 units per month to almost a thousand.
A multiplication by 100! How did you follow?
We hired 150 new people and worked in two shifts so that production could continue around the clock. The real challenge was space. Suddenly we order 250,000 shells to store saliva, chemicals per ton, swabs per million. At one point we brought in a 40 foot storage container. And then a second and a third, and pretty soon we had 10 of these great units on the property. My employees had nowhere to park their cars! So yes, the pandemic has been important to us, and that’s just on the manufacturing side. At the same time that we produced the traditional PCR test kits, our research and development department focused on creating what I mentioned earlier: a DNA-based test kit simple enough to be used in point of care – in hospitals, schools, offices and walk-in clinics, and ultimately at home. This is where we focus in terms of innovation.
How does what you describe differ from the testing options currently available?
PCR tests identify traces of Covid-19 in your DNA. The way it works is almost like a photocopier that amplifies genetic material so that there is enough to analyze. It is very reliable in terms of accurate result, but the downside is that these tests currently require a trained professional to administer and a lab environment to obtain results. Rapid antigen tests, on the other hand, are very simple to use, like a home pregnancy test, but they are not very sensitive, meaning you may not get an accurate result.
The Ontario government recently began distributing 5.5 million rapid tests per week. Is this a good or a bad thing?
It’s the best option we have. Nobody wants to wait 24 hours or more for a PCR test result. If you’re having friends over or going to a restaurant, you want results within an hour. It’s funny though, because before the pandemic antigen testing was considered old technology – it was the past and PCR was the future. Sort of like a typewriter versus a computer. Most of the companies that used to create antigen tests stopped doing it because it wasn’t seen as a growing area. But then Covid-19 arrived and in that context, antigen testing suddenly became very valuable again because of its convenience.
So your test would have the accuracy of PCR with the convenience of RAT?
Exactly! Our goal is to democratize PCR testing so that everyone can access it and not have to queue at a hospital or pharmacy. We are not there yet, but we are getting closer.
How would these tests work? Keep in mind that you are talking to someone who failed science in 10th grade.
It’s saliva-based; no swab needed. You spit into a device we develop and close it, and a preservative is automatically released into the sample which isolates the RNA – this is the part of the DNA that needs to be examined. Twenty minutes later, if the sample turns red, you are positive; if it’s yellow, you’re negative. Easy and fast. We’ll have to wait for regulatory approval, but I’d say that’s months, not years.
What are the remaining steps before it’s ready?
We work on simplicity, precision, accuracy, in order to make the specimen pure in a short time. We can do it in the lab, but most people don’t have centrifuges and incubators at home. In the IT world, they have the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” – which means your output is as good as your inputs – and that phrase applies to diagnostics as well. If you have an ugly specimen, there is no test value.
Can you share a recent scientific breakthrough?
I don’t want to go into details because there are a lot of competitors, both in Canada and elsewhere in the world.
So is it a race?
No question. Whatever information I have, the Chinese have it too, the Indians, the Brazilians. The company is not in competition with the company opposite. This is a billion dollar technology and we are in a global competition. We currently have 26 granted patents and 10 more pending, but if people in different countries do not respect your patent, what are you going to do? Go sue them in Russia?
What difference could rapid PCR tests make in terms of the general public’s ability to fight Covid?
This could make a huge difference in containing the virus. Think of schools or workplaces. We routinely use PCR testing with our staff because we have the facility and we haven’t had a single outbreak. When a positive result is detected, the person is sent home. Imagine the travel implications if you could just spit into a tube at the airport and get on the plane?
So you’re saying a quick test before travel isn’t enough?
Well, it’s better than nothing. But if you could have greater precision, it would make such a difference. Everyone talks about the need to get back to normal, and I think accurate detection is the best weapon we have. If you know the history of biology, you know that every eight years or so there is a new disease that may or may not cause an epidemic. If you can see the wolf, you can avoid the wolf.
There has been a lot of discussion about how Canada needs to strengthen the production of domestic tests to avoid dependence on other countries. You probably agree?
Yes absolutely. We have such a strong pool of scientific talent that there is no reason why we shouldn’t be more self-sufficient. What we need is a commitment from the government to ensure that manufacturers are able to expand if necessary.
When you say commitment, you mean money.
Yes. For business owners, it is not possible to sustain capacity much beyond what the market demands at that time. The government has to say, ‘Okay, you scale up and we’ll support you even if we don’t need the product now.’ Because if you wait for the crisis, it’s too late. It’s a bit like investing in a bunker. You hope you don’t need it, but if you wait until you do, it’s too late.
And speaking of money. You recently donated $5 million to Brock’s engineering department. I guess you did pretty well in all of this?
Yes, we did well, but I’m not doing this to get rich. I’m thrilled to be able to support innovation at Brock where I spent so many years, but what else am I going to do? You eat three meals a day, you have clothes to wear. What else are you gonna do? And I bought a new car. I haven’t had a car for a long time and my wife has always driven me to work. I miss our time together in the morning, so I could give her the car.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity