12/12/2014 12:03 EST | Updated 02/11/2015 05:59 EST

Ebola testing system from Toronto company to be tested in Africa

A Toronto company that makes a diagnostic testing system for multiple diseases begins a trial in January in Africa in the battle against Ebola.

Fio makes a handheld device that performs almost instant blood or saliva tests for diseases such as malaria or dengue fever.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is backing a trial of the device in Ebola-stricken areas of West Africa, hoping it will provide the advantage of an instant test and help in managing the disease.

So far there have been 6,400 Ebola deaths in West Africa, many of them among health care workers. One problem is that the virus is very contagious and controlling it involves removing infected people from contact with others.

“Current tests have to be done in centralized facilities like labs and it could take anywhere from four hours to two days,” said Dr. Michael Greenberg, CEO of Fio Corp.

“So if you have a fever and you might have Ebola, your blood is taken and you’re put into quarantine with a lot of other people, some of who do and some who don’t have it,” he said in an interview with CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Cost-effective test

It’s “normal human nature” to avoid testing under those circumstances, as being in quarantine increases an individual's risk of infection, Dr. Greenberg said.

He added that an instant result can help health care workers direct only infected people to quarantine.

Fio does not make the actual Ebola test — the Gates Foundation has teamed up the company with another that has a promising instant test, which is also very cost-effective. Instead Fio makes a diagnostics system that can be used with testing to help manage Ebola.

“We’re working with a number of other companies who make tests and we’re kind of a universal reader of tests that can accurately say this person does and this person does not have Ebola and also guide the health worker for how to manage either patient,” Dr. Greenberg said.

The Fio system also means instant data on Ebola that can be shared by health care providers trying to make decisions about handling the disease.

Need for good data

“All the information is uploaded to cloud, so decision makers can actually have a real-time map of what is going on and also then direct skills and scarce resources,” he said.

Dr. Greenberg said the World Health Organization has been struggling to get good data about Ebola out of countries in West Africa, where the health care systems are under extreme stress.

He said having data uploaded instantly for each patient will help decision-makers identify where there is danger of Ebola spreading and direct resources to the right areas,

Fio was formed in 2006 and it started using its diagnostic system in Latin America and Africa last year, working with the U.S. Department of Defence. In 2015, the device will be sold in France, Switzerland, and Germany – for use anywhere health care is being delivered outside of central facilities like hospitals.

Dr. Greenberg also sees potential applications in Canada.

“To begin with there is a lot of remote communities and a device that can guide health workers through the procedure, that is finding out what the diagnosis is, giving the test and doing the right treatment – a device like that can ...upscale the skill of the health worker in remote communities,” he said.