A non-invasive COVID-19 test in 20 seconds? Light-technology company seeks clinical trials

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab.

Imagine instead of an uncomfortable nasal swab that takes a day or two for a COVID-19 result, you rather get a beam of light in your finger for 20 seconds. 

That's the technology Toronto-area company ISBRG Corporation is working on, with CEO Duncan McIntyre saying it could be a game-changer for economic reopening, transportation and event planning. 

"An application that could be used at border points, as your board an airplane, to a major entertainment complex, a sports complex," he said. "That's the nature of this screening capability." 

The technology uses light to measure absorbents in the body and originally the idea was a test for THC, after winning an Ontario Centres of Excellence award in 2018 for its THC Intoxication Detection Challenge.

But the company decided to pivot to COVID-19 once the pandemic was expanding in late January. 

"We have proof of concept on this, but what we're trying to do is work on the accuracy, so we can validate that accuracy and put it in place," he said. 

McIntyre has also had the benefit of having Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield on his advisory board. 

"Chris has been a great asset with his knowledge of technology, he took a light-bearing measuring device into space with him, so he has been a great asset," he said, adding there's been great interest with scientists and experts they've consulted with. 

"We've filed patent on this obviously, every scientist that we've talked to, including NRC (National Research Council Canada) in Ottawa, has said this is fantastic technology," he said. "But so far we just haven't found a granting body." 

His ideal scenario for a trial would be testing patients in hospitals and assessment centres and then comparing the two sets of results, eventually perfecting the algorithm for stand-alone testing in the future. 

"Because of the novelty and the innovation that we have, most of the funding of tests that that federal government has done, when you're trying to write guidelines, sometimes it's very difficult to write guidelines for innovation," he said. "Public markets like to also see a government stake in there."

ISBRG's estimate of its test is a small fraction of current PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, without the waste of discarding used tests. 

"We've proceeded with the hospitals to make sure that we're set up and ready to go and we're now waiting for government to come through and say, okay, this is meaningful and we'd like to proceed with this," he said.