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How rapid coronavirus testing could help Canada flatten the curve

Health Canada approves rapid test kits for COVID-19
WATCH: Ottawa biotech company Spartan Bioscience has the green light from Health Canada to expand production of its rapid COVID-19 test kits, which offer results within minutes and without a lab. Abigail Bimman reports on how it could change the dynamic of testing in this country.

Health Canada recently approved a test for COVID-19 that claims to deliver results in half an hour — much faster than most testing methods currently being used across Canada.

And having more, faster tests could make a big difference in how Canada fights the disease, experts say.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said he felt “joy and relief” at hearing that a faster test was available.

“We need rapid testing if we’re going to return to a new normal.”

The new test, made by Spartan Bioscience in Ottawa, is portable — about the size of a coffee cup. The tester takes a throat swab from a patient, pops it into the small machine, and less than an hour later, it gives a result, said Paul Lem, founder and CEO of Spartan Bioscience.

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Another rapid test, made by Abbott Laboratories, was recently approved for use in the U.S.

READ MORE: How rapid testing kits could lead to more targeted coronavirus screenings

Spartan plans to eventually make thousands of testing devices per week, and hundreds of thousands of testing kits, Lem said.

Rapid tests could be important for a few reasons. First, by making testing more available, they could help to detect milder cases of COVID-19, where someone wasn’t sick enough to visit a hospital.

“We think that by offering portable COVID-19 testing everywhere, this will really help reduce the spread,” Lem said.

“Because you can imagine right now, there’s all these people with no symptoms walking around the community. If we could actually test them, then they could self-isolate and they wouldn’t be spreading the infection.”

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More importantly, according to Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, faster testing will help public health authorities to instantly focus their resources.

“If a person is negative, then you don’t have to start doing the contact tracing, which takes up public health resources. You wouldn’t need to use perhaps the same amount of personal protective equipment, which we know are in limited supply,” he said. “So it can also be a resource-saving initiative.”

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Coronavirus: How increased testing may hold the key to unlocking this pandemic
Coronavirus: How increased testing may hold the key to unlocking this pandemic

Similarly, if a person tests positive within a few minutes of their doctor’s visit, you can more quickly address the problem, said Dr. Ronald St. John, former director general of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response with the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“I think the really important part is if you can test somebody who is likely to have the virus, maybe in the very early stages of the disease and get a positive result, you take actions with that person and that person can no longer initiate a new chain of transmission.”

READ MORE: Canadian company says Health Canada has approved its rapid COVID-19 test

Rapid tests, and more testing generally, will also give a better idea of what the outbreak looks like across Canada, Bogoch said, allowing public health authorities to tailor their response. It will also be especially useful in smaller communities without much testing capacity of their own, he said.

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And once Canada’s outbreak is more under control, rapid testing could help us keep the virus out, Furness said. “You can stamp out all the infections you want but if new ones are pouring in every day, you’ll never solve this.

“You can’t imagine having three-day lineups at airports for testing. But you can imagine showing up two hours before your flight, checking your bag, getting your boarding pass, having a finger prick or a swab and then getting on your plane.”

This could help life return more to normal, he said, while still maintaining some vigilance against further infections.

Signs Canada’s curve is flattening despite limited testing
Signs Canada’s curve is flattening despite limited testing

But, he and others caution, the efficacy of rapid testing still needs to be proven at a large scale.

Tests are never perfect, he said. False positives will mean you take action when it’s not required, which is “inconvenient,” but false negatives could mean that people remain active in the community and inadvertently pass the disease on.

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“I want to listen for and watch for increasing evidence that the tests are working as expected.”

— with files from Abigail Bimman, Global National