Rapid testing in Canada lagging behind as U.S. embraces the technology

OTTAWA — While medical experts and Health Canada agree that rapid testing plays an important role in the fight against COVID-19, self-administered rapid tests have yet to see approval and clinical rapid testing is lagging behind.

To date, Health Canada has approved several rapid testing methods — which are typically used detect COVID-19 antigens — but only for use by a healthcare professional for point-of-care testing. To date, not a single self-administered rapid test has been approved.

“Health Canada has authorized the sale and importation of COVID-19 tests only for use by health care professionals or trained operators,” Health Canada wrote on its website. “However, we are open to reviewing all testing solutions. This includes approaches that use self-testing kits, to enable individuals with or without symptoms to assess and monitor their own infection status.”

On Tuesday, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top public health officer, told reporters that there remains some concern about the effectiveness of these devices.

“They do have some limitations in terms of the sensitivity — the ability to detect the virus — because they don’t have an amplification step,” she said.

While the accuracy of these devices may never match the traditional testing methods currently in use, infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anna Banerji believes they play an important role in the fight against COVID-19.

“The advantage of them is that generally they’re cheaper, they can be done outside of the lab and they can be done very quickly,” she said. “So they’re good for screening if you have a whole bunch of people that you’re worried about.”

Banerji describes these devices could be used at a meat processing plant or airport, for example, where it would be easy to screen a group of people quickly and pinpoint where an infection might be.

“This, in addition to all the other measures, is an additional step that can help you to pick up things quicker,” she said. “You can you can pick people who have no symptoms are going on a plane … They (could) have a rapid test on site. That’s better than no tests.”

The use of the already approved rapid tests is also a concern. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters the federal government has sent more than 14 million rapid test kits, but it is unclear how many are actually being used because distribution of these tests ultimately comes down to the provinces.

In a statement, Alberta Health Services said it has completed nearly 10,000 rapid point-of-care tests since the beginning of a pilot project that began in December.

By the end of the month, the agency expects to have rapid testing in 48 COVID-19 assessment centres, 27 hospital labs across the province, and in four homeless shelters in Calgary and Edmonton. The province is also expanding it mobile testing units in the coming weeks.

The health departments for both Ontario and British Columbia were not able to provide CTVNews.ca with rapid testing information by publish time. A November news release from the Ontario government indicated the province had acquired 98,000 rapid tests, with plans for an additional 2.7 million by the end of December.

In the United States, the scale of rapid testing is vastly different. On Tuesday, Abbot Laboratories, makers of credit card-sized test that costs just $5 and can turn results in 15 minutes, announced it would begin distributing its tests to schools, universities, and workplaces that require frequent testing.

Last week, rapid testing was deployed three days prior to the Buffalo Bills NFL playoff game, where 6,700 fans were able to attend. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the rapid testing method used at the game should be part of the state’s plan to reopen the economy.

Alexandre Brolo, a chemistry professor at the University of Victoria, told CTVNews.ca that there are two main reasons why Canada is lagging behind the U.S. in terms of rapid testing: money and staffing numbers.

“I think Canada did well in having some programs that that were fast in terms of providing support for research early in the pandemic, but I think that the amount is still not enough compared to what you see in other countries,” he said.

Brolo and his team are developing two of their own rapid testing products, including one that can be used at home and looks similar to a pregnancy test.

Brolo said the development process is “going relatively well” and aims to commercialize the product in April, but the process in developing such a test has been difficult.

“You have all different kinds of proteins (in saliva) … and within this soup, you want to collect just one kind of molecule,” he said.

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