Chasing a COVID-free workplace: New mobile test aims to identify sick employees on the job

Even at the height of summer and amid a global pandemic, days start early at New Gold Inc.’s silver and gold mine in Rainy River, Ont. 

As a precaution these days, there are fewer workers on any given shift, but shortly after sunrise a stream of cars and buses begins to arrive at the mine 65 kilometres northwest of Fort Frances. 

Nurses stand by to ask questions about COVID-19 symptoms and check the temperatures of those who haven’t been onsite for a few days. Signs remind crews to don PPE. As of early August, the mine hasn’t seen any COVID-19 cases. 

New Gold wants to keep it that way. 

The company is the first in Canada to try out a new test that can diagnose COVID-19 cases in as little as one hour, outside a lab setting. 

The testing kits, from Guelph, Ont.,-based company Precision Biomonitoring, have been approved by Health Canada for point-of-need use, meaning they are mobile. The goal is to create a COVID-free workplace, and New Gold CEO Renaud Adams is reaching for it.

It all comes down to one thing: “protecting your people the best you can do,” Adams said. “We are at zero [cases] and we want to stay there, and that’s really the meaning of it.”

The COVID-19 testing kits from Precision Biomonitoring are fully mobile and can produce results in as little as one hour. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

As an essential service, New Gold didn’t shut down completely during the pandemic, but it did scale back operations. Step by step, it has been scaling back up again.

“Every time you add a step and you don’t add an extra protection, it’s a challenge,” Adams said. 

The site features a large open pit mine, but there are some jobs where maintaining a physical distance remains hard. 

Up to 150 workers can live onsite during shift rotations, sharing living spaces in trailers and dining together in a cafeteria. Distancing efforts and enhanced cleaning protocols are in place, but “it would take one person to infect multiple others,” Adams said. 

New Gold received the Precision Biomonitoring test kits at Rainy River last month. The kits are essentially miniature labs, with tubes containing reagents, or biomedical ingredients, and a machine analyzer weighing about 1.4 kilograms, small enough to hold with one hand. 

Training via video

Health-care workers at the mine have now started testing some employees, after Precision Biomonitoring trained them via videoconference on how to use the test kits.

Although patient samples are taken the same way as other COVID-19 tests, via a swab, the samples are then analyzed in tubes with freeze-dried reagents that don’t require refrigeration. This is a key difference between Precision Biomonitoring’s test kits and others, which can sometimes degrade over time if not stored at specific temperatures. It is this feature of the product that makes it mobile.

Up to nine patient samples can be tested at a time in the analyzing machines, which users run via a smartphone app. The tests target multiple parts of the virus in order to increase the accuracy of results and rule out false negatives. Results are displayed on the phone screen in as little as an hour.

WATCH | How a mobile test can aim to keep COVID out of a workplace:

Precision Biomonitoring CEO Mario Thomas says his mobile COVID test can create a ‘virus-free zone.’ 0:32

The technology is a variation on a portable test Precision Biomonitoring developed to test bodies of water for certain organisms. 

Co-founder and CEO Mario Thomas said developing this COVID-19 testing device felt like a moral obligation. 

“As a scientist, frankly, I was terrified [by] the pandemic.”

For use in ‘remote areas’

Thomas and his colleagues realized they had the ability to design something that could be used outside hospitals, “in remote areas where getting tested is not so practical.” He said the team worked around the clock to make it happen.

Key components of the tests are made in the U.S., but the company expects to get approval soon to have them manufactured at a lab in Kanata, Ont., which will allow them to ramp up production as needed. 

As talk of a potential “second wave” of coronavirus infections continues, “the timing is right to launch this now,” Thomas said.

Not all workers at New Gold’s Rainy River mine can physically distance, so the company is interested in onsite COVID-19 tests. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Intrigued by the idea of creating what Thomas calls a “virus-free zone,” hundreds of organizations have reached out to learn more about the product, he said. Industries from manufacturing to fishing to film production have all expressed interest as they try to find ways to get back to work safely. 

Each test kit costs around $ 30,000, and includes 1,000 tests as well as virtual training sessions with Precision Biomonitoring. The company says this is a reasonable price for the technology.

Physician oversight required

Not just anyone can buy the test kits, though. As part of the federal government’s approval conditions, clients must also have trained medical workers, including a lab technician and a nurse, and have physician oversight in order to use them. 

Adams said it has taken a lot of people significant time and effort to implement the new testing capabilities at the Rainy River mine. 

New Gold is the first company to test its workers using the new mobile COVID-19 test by Precision Biomonitoring at its silver and gold mine in Rainy River, Ont. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

But as restrictions ease and the company continues to expand operations toward pre-COVID levels, he said it’s a “milestone.”

It’s still early days, but New Gold will likely aim to test everyone as they start 14-day shift rotations onsite. Should the experience go well, the company may expand the technology to its two other mines in British Columbia. 

“It’s a new technology,” Adams said. “We’re prepared, you know, to have a period of adjustment if need be. But at the end of the day it could only be positive.”

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