Feds promise help for surging COVID-19 test demand but won’t OK rapid test tech yet
Health Minister Patty Hajdu has said her department isn't satisfied that the testing systems submitted for approval yield accurate enough results
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising to do more to help provinces respond to soaring demands for COVID-19 testing but there is still no indication of when the government will approve the tests that can deliver results in mere minutes.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu has said her department isn’t satisfied that the testing systems submitted for approval yield accurate enough results.
In the Sept. 23 throne speech, the government said it is “pursuing every technology and every option for faster tests for Canadians.” Once they are approved, the government promises to deploy them quickly, and is creating a “testing assistance response team” in the meantime to help with the insatiable growth in demand.
“Canadians should not be waiting in line for hours to get a test,” Gov. Gen. Julie Payette read from the speech Sept. 23.
And yet they are.
In Kitchener, Ont., Sept. 23, people began lining up at a drive-thru testing site at 2:30 a.m. five hours before it opened. By 7:30 a.m. the Grand River Hospital site was at capacity and by 9:15 it had closed entirely because impatient people were getting aggressive with staff.
In Ottawa, people reported on social media that they were arriving at one testing site before 5 a.m. to find dozens of people in line ahead of them. All the city’s main testing sites have reached capacity by mid-morning now for more than a week.
“People lining up to be tested is a problem,” said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa.
Deonandan said he understands why governments are reluctant to wave through tests that aren’t delivering the highest quality of results, but he said there are ways to use them without risking safety.
“They can be surveillance tools,” he said. “This is what I call the failure of imagination on the part of people that are OK’ing this.”
He said the lower-quality tests tend to deliver more false positives than false negatives, which means people with COVID-19 wouldn’t be getting missed. Rather the tests can help quickly ferret out people with possible COVID-19, who can then be sent for clinical diagnosis using the more accurate molecular test to confirm it.
He likened it to cancer-screening methods such as mammograms, which can spot possible reasons for concern. Patients are then sent for further tests to confirm or rule out cancer.
The only test now approved in Canada to diagnose an active infection of the virus that causes COVID-19 needs to be completed in a lab, to look for the virus’s genetic material. It takes hours to do, plus travel time for samples collected to be shipped to a lab, and more time for the results to be relayed back to public health authorities.
Health Canada has received applications for 14 different tests that can be done quickly, right at the place where the sample is taken, using faster technology that can produce results in just minutes.
Carleton University epidemiologist Patrick Saunders-Hastings said rapid tests can be a “game changer” because even if they are a step down in performance, we have reached the point where the gold-standard test can’t keep up and even a lower-quality test is better than nothing.
“The value judgment comes down to whether that reduction in performance offsets the capacity we have to test more people and reduce the barriers to testing for a lot of people,” he said.
Health Canada spokesman Eric Morrissette said Sept. 23 the department has made it an absolute priority to review the applications for alternative COVID-19 tests.
Canada is doing more tests than it has before. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports each day the average number of tests completed each a day, over the previous seven-day period. Between Aug. 25 and Sept. 21, that number was around 47,000. On Sept. 22 and 23 it jumped to more than 70,000.
Toronto Liberal MP Julie Dzerowicz said in the House of Commons Sept. 23 that the government knows people want rapid tests and is doing everything it can to get them underway.
“We have heard loud and clear, not only from the opposition, but from Canadians, that everybody is looking for rapid tests to be approved,” she said.