Vancouver’s Light AI partners with WHL to provide fast, no-swab COVID-19 tests

The company's diagnostic technology is now focused squarely on the pandemic.

The company’s diagnostic technology is now focused squarely on the pandemic

There are plenty of reasons to drop out of university, but Peter Whitehead has one of the better answers when he tells the story of why he left UBC in his third year.

“I invented a heart catheter,” Whitehead says, so matter-of-factly that you’d think he was recounting yesterday’s weather. “That took me to the dark side, and I continually started working on new things. Had a few successes and some failures.”

Sure, if by “a few successes” he’s referring to creating a device used to diagnose oral cancer—and to his most recent invention, a no-swab COVID-19 test that lets patients diagnose themselves with their smartphones.

The latter was originally intended to test for strep throat. But when “COVID reared its ugly head,” as Whitehead says, his Vancouver-based company, Light AI, adapted the technology, working with U.S. health-care giant Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings (Labcorp) to develop the new version.

To do a test, which takes four seconds, all you have to do is photograph the back of your throat. The Light AI app then uses artificial intelligence to send the image through its algorithm and determine if you have COVID.

Though Health Canada hasn’t approved Light AI’s app just yet, Whitehead is confident in the product. So is the Western Hockey League, which recently saw eight of its teams, including the Langley-based Vancouver Giants, partner with his company.

“The biggest question in all these home-care tests—whether it be a nasal or a solution—is how well can the patient use the tool, right?” Whitehead asks. “And with our first 300 hockey players and staff, only two people couldn’t take it properly. So having a 99-percent success rate for the population taking pictures of themselves is pretty good.”

Whitehead and his team of about 30 now have their sights on getting the green light from Health Canada.They’ve been talking to the federal government about working with Transport Canada, too.

As for what the future holds, “the next big pandemic is probably going to be a loss of efficacy of antibiotics,” Whitehead reckons. “People with a viral infection are given an enormous amount of antibiotics, and they don’t need them.”

But hey, he doesn’t seem that smart. It’s probably nothing to worry about.