As parts of Canada return to lockdown, experts say rapid testing offers a way forward

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While some regions are now grappling with a second pandemic shutdown, some scientists say rolling out rapid tests is the best way to support sectors of the economy that have been crushed by public health measures aimed at slow the spread of COVID-19.Between March and September, a single rapid point-of-care test was approved by Canadian regulators, while the United States Food and Drug Administration gave emergency clearances to many more.

Following pressure from public health experts and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Health Canada has since approved four more rapid test devices. Millions of tests have been ordered by the federal government for use in walk-in clinics and doctor’s offices.

But with a vaccine still a few months away, some scientists say rapid test devices should be used outside of healthcare settings in places many people are now reluctant to visit – airports, hotels, restaurants, casinos, movie theaters. and performing arts centers – and to workplaces like warehouses and food processing plants.

Dr Steven Newmaster is a professor at the University of Guelph and an expert in DNA identification systems. He advised Canadian company Songbird, which obtained approval from Health Canada to sell the Hyris bCube rapid molecular test late last month.

The bCube uses the “gold standard” in COVID-19 testing, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process, to determine if a person is infected with the virus.

A patient receives a nasal or oral pharyngeal swab, the sample is plugged into the cube-shaped test box, and then the result is sent to a cloud-based system where users can check the results.

But unlike laboratory PCR tests, which are widely used today in Canada, the bCube is portable and can provide definitive results in 90 minutes. The test is 95% accurate, based on clinical trial data provided to Health Canada.

WATCH: How Accurate Are Rapid COVID-19 Tests?

Canada has approved and purchased two different types of COVID-19 rapid tests. While not as accurate as the tests currently in use, experts say they can play an important role in stopping the spread of the virus. 8:33

Newmaster said widespread rapid testing is a viable alternative to more lockdowns because testing can easily identify infected people, allowing them to be isolated quickly to prevent further spread.

“I think rapid tests are extremely important. They are a game changer. They fill a void in society to get us back to work, to get us back to travel, to get us back to school, ”he told CBC News.

“Rapid point-of-care testing is a way to deal with the spread, monitor the spread and alleviate a lot of stress because people can move around and know where places are safe. We need that infrastructure in place.

Newmaster said the closures are a blunt instrument that has wreaked havoc on our economy – millions of people are still out of work, despite more promising job figures released last Friday – and eight months after the start of this pandemic, Canada needs to be much more focused in its approach.

“I come from a group of molecular biologists who want to democratize genetics. We bring it to society and to industry – little kinds of instruments that you can hold in your hands, ”he said.

“We have to put these tests in society. It’s cheap and fast and allows us to reduce risk. ”

Some American companies, like Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts, have actively researched rapid testing options to convince customers to come back.

People walk along a pedestrian bridge near the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. Wynn Resorts said Thursday it has recorded 548 positive COVID-19 tests among its 12,000 employees since May, and three workers have died. (John Locher / AP Photo)

As the Vegas Strip experiences a massive drop in visitor numbers, the casino company is building its own on-site PCR test processing center so it can test thousands of casino employees and customers every day – a program designed to make the property a safe COVID-free zone.

This kind of approach could help the struggling tourism industry here in Canada, which employed more than 1.7 million people before the pandemic.

Newmaster said such mass testing could also be the solution to the 14-day quarantines imposed on returning travelers – a directive that has all but ended international business travel, devastating the airline industry.

“It’s pretty silly, really. If I can test myself and I don’t have the virus I’m healthy, I feel great, why am I in quarantine for two weeks? I am not a threat to anyone, ”he said. .

Rapid airline eye tests

Air Canada has purchased 25,000 rapid tests so it can start testing its employees – and it could purchase many more to put passengers at ease.

“We believe testing will be essential to protect employees and customers until a COVID-19 vaccine is available,” said Dr. Jim Chung, Chief Medical Officer of Air Canada.

“Rapid testing is a way to allow governments to relax current general travel restrictions and quarantines in a measured manner while safeguarding the health and safety of the public. ”

While some critics argue that the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House has given rapid tests a bad name – the White House uses Abbott Laboratories’ ID NOW test – Dr Michael Mina, epidemiologist at Harvard University , said he drew a different conclusion about the usefulness of such tests after executive branch infections.

“The White House managed to go from March to October without having cases that really spread widely – despite their complete inability to wear masks or social distancing – and I attribute that in large part to their rigorous testing protocol.” , he said in an interview.

Without testing staff and visitors, the largely maskless White House would have been a “super-broadcaster” much earlier in this pandemic, he said.

President Donald Trump opens a box containing a 5-minute test for COVID-19 from Abbott Laboratories as Stephen Hahn, Commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday March 30, 2020, at Washington. (Alex Brandon / AP Photo)

“The fact that they have gone so long without major outbreaks tells us that frequent testing can be very powerful in reducing risk, but it does not bring it closer to zero, so we must maintain all other public health practices,” he told me.

“If you’re just testing, you’re basically playing roulette. Eventually, your chances will run out. ”

Mina said he expects rapid tests to be widely available in the United States by spring 2021, which could be a much needed boost for industries where social distancing is not everything. simply not possible.

“They will become ubiquitous. Many, many people will have access to it, ”he said. “You brush your teeth and then you take a test.

“They can also be used as a barrier to entry. If someone tests positive, they cannot go to a restaurant or a school. If he’s negative, he can, but he still takes the same public health precautions. “

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