Canada’s health minister has signed an interim order to speed up access to COVID-19 test kits to help identify new cases of the novel coronavirus.
Health Canada said in a statement Wednesday that the order signed by Health Minister Patty Hajdu will help expedite the arrival of two new diagnostic tests to allow provincial labs to speed up testing.
Those test kits, made by Roche Molecular Systems and ThermoFisher Scientific — both based in the U.S. — were approved for use by the federal government earlier Wednesday.
It will also ensure Canadian access to other COVID-19-related medical devices “used to treat, mitigate or prevent COVID-19, if necessary,” Health Canada added.
“COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving global health crisis, and we have been working around the clock with provinces and territories to make sure everyone has what they need to continue to detect and interrupt the chain of transmission,” Hajdu said in a statement.
“Early diagnosis is a critical component, so we are taking extraordinary measures to help make that happen as quickly as possible.”
What does an interim order do?
Health Canada says the interim order is “one of the fastest mechanisms available to the Government of Canada to help make health products available to address larger scale public health emergencies.”
The order, which will last for 14 days but can be extended up to a year if needed, allows the sale and import of the two newly-approved test kits in Canada. It would also allow other health-care manufacturers to submit their own test kits and related medical devices for faster approval.
Health officials told reporters Wednesday that the need for faster testing is becoming more critical as cases in Canada spike. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 600 cases have been confirmed across the country, eight of them fatal.
“We’ve been working around the clock with province and territories to make sure everyone has what they need to continue to detect and interrupt the chain of transmission, and provinces and territories have been ramping up their capacity to do so in incredibly innovative ways,” Hajdu said. “However, the current situation is constantly evolving.”
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday that over 50,000 people have been tested so far, but warned the sharp rise in cases over the past week shows evidence that there is “some degree” of community spread in multiple provinces.
“Our time to act is now,” she said.
“To find and stamp out community transmission, public health authorities across Canada remain laser focused on detecting and interrupting any chains in transmission.”
Ottawa has asked manufacturers how they can fill shortages of supplies needed to fight the pandemic, after the World Health Organization urged all counties to “scale up” their production of medical equipment.
Tam said ventilators have been pre-emptively purchased at the federal level to avoid a shortage, which is being experienced by many countries around the world.
“There hasn’t been any specific requests necessarily, but we’re just trying to pre-empt any need,” she said.
She added Ottawa has secured 800,000 swabs for test kits. For all other medical supplies, Tam said she expects Canada will be able to meet about 75 per cent of the anticipated demand.
“We’re pulling all stops to look at any other supply, suppliers, bulk purchasing, and any other means,” she said.
Officials are warning health-care systems around the world will be further strained unless people practice social distancing, in an effort to “flatten the curve” and avoid dramatic spikes in cases as seen in countries like Italy.
Hajdu took time Wednesday to thank Canadians for doing their part in following the advice to limit social interactions, stay home and work remotely if possible, and wash their hands frequently.
“The efforts that we’re seeing from Canadians across the country to slow the spread of the virus has been truly phenomenal,” she said.
“Changing our behaviours is not easy, but Canadians across the country are showing that it’s possible. … These actions are all helping our neighbours and our friends and our colleagues very much.”
Despite those efforts, provincial health authorities are already seeing strains in their labs’ capacity to conduct testing, which was moved to provincial labs as much as possible to avoid straining operations at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.
Ontario and British Columbia, the provinces with the highest numbers of cases, have had to set new limits on who will be tested due to a demand for testing materials.
In B.C., testing is limited to people showing symptoms of the COVID-19 disease who are either hospitalized, work in the health-care system, are residents of long-term care facilities, or are part of an investigation into a cluster or outbreak.
Both B.C. and Ontario say international travellers no longer have to be tested, as they are already being asked to self-isolate for 14 days.