Irish genetic science specialist Plusvital hopes to provide pre-travel Covid-19 screening after boosting its capacity to handle 1,000 virus tests a day and provide results in six hours.
Based in Dún Laoghaire, Plusvital has been providing coronavirus tests to hospitals and other organisations since late April, using the PCR system also used by health services, which detects Covid-19’s genetic material.
Mike Shelly, Plusvital's chief executive, said on Monday that the company recently boosted capacity to allow it handle 1,000 tests per day, while it has hired five extra lab technicians to deal with the work.
Mr Shelly confirmed that Plusvital has been in talks with companies interested in providing tests for people planning on travelling out of the State, likely to be needed as the Republic and other EU countries adopt a new system that waives quarantines where people have tested negative for Covid.
Plusvital’s partners would take swabs from intending travellers, while the company would then test the samples and provide the results.
It normally take six hours to deliver a result from the point at which it receives a test. This makes it attractive for anyone providing pre-travel screening, as they will have a short time in which to obtain a result, according to Mr Shelly.
“If the PCR method is going to be agreed for travel, that’s going to take a lot of capacity and a lot of effort,” he said. “It does not all need to happen at the airport, but it can happen in collaboration with airports.”
Cork, Dublin and Shannon airports plan to establish their own pre-departure testing centres.
However, Mr Shelly pointed out that these may not suit those living longer distances from airports, who could have to make two trips if they need a test.
At the same time, the speed required means that travellers are going to need their tests analysed in Ireland rather than outside the country.
PCR tests, dubbed the gold standard, identify a strand of Covid’s genetic material that enables the virus to replicate itself.
While the system is slower and more expensive that other types of screening, the Government says current advice is that PCR tests are the most suitable for international travel.
Plusvital’s core business, which analyses racehorse DNA, meant that it already had the equipment needed to analyse PCR tests, as its normal work focuses on testing genetic material.
Mr Shelly said that it began using this to analyse tests for hospitals in late April, after its systems had been validated and overcame challenges in obtaining supplies of materials needed for screening, which were in high demand at the time.
Plusvital handles tests for several private hospitals. “A lot of hospitals are screening patients coming in for surgery. It’s an ongoing requirement,” Mr Shelly noted.
The group has also analysed tests for businesses that need staff screened. Plusvital’s chief executive said that this helped to take pressure off the Health Service Executive’s capacity, which is needed for broader community testing.
Meanwhile, Plusvital’s usual business, which provides racehorse breeders and owners with a system for identifying an individual thoroughbred’s optimum distance, has yet to see any serious impact from the pandemic.
However, Mr Shelley said that returns from recent bloodstock auctions had been softer than usual.
He predicted that the market for horses could suffer in the face of a recession resulting from the pandemic, as they are mainly a discretionary purchase.