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Suncor research could help in battle against COVID-19

Western University researchers look into genome sequencing tech used for wastewater treatment as potential solution to rapid test for COVID-19 antibodies.

Canada’s oil and natural gas industry is a global leader in innovation. Here’s a great example of how that innovation can lead to advances in other areas: research underway at Suncor Energy’s Sarnia refinery may be key to developing a quick test for COVID-19 antibodies.

Martin Flatley, a senior staff engineer working at Suncor, had previously partnered with Dr. Gregory Gloor at Western University in London, Ontario, to identify and sequence genomes of organisms that help treat the refinery’s wastewater. Flatley realized that the genome sequencing technology developed for the project might actually be adapted to make a fast and affordable home COVID-19 antibody test.

Flatley and Gloor began talking and soon they received support from Mitacs, a government-funded non-profit national research organization. Mitacs is working with the federal government on developing single-use home kits to diagnose people with COVID-19 within three days of the start of symptoms.

The home kits are still being tested and have yet to be approved. But they could work in a similar way as a diabetes blood test – for example, a strip would change colour if COVID-19 antibodies are detected.

“High-tech equipment and expertise being employed for one kind of research can often be redeployed to inform technologies and innovations in a completely different field. And because the oil and natural gas industry is based on technology and innovation, this sector is full of potential for exactly this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas,” says Terry Abel, executive vice-president Canadian Operations and Climate, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.