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Airline conducts rapid blood tests for COVID-19. Should this be the new normal?

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As the novel coronavirus spreads across the globe, governments and businesses have implemented stringent measures in an attempt to limit the virus’ spread.

Last week, Emirates became the first airline to conduct on-site rapid COVID-19 blood tests for passengers ahead of boarding, causing some to question if this is a practice we can expect to see elsewhere.

In a press release, the airline said the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) conducted “quick blood tests,” on passengers before they departed on a flight from Dubai to Tunisia.

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According to Emirates, the tests were conducted at a group-check in an area of Dubai International Airport, and results from the test were available within 10 minutes.

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Adel Al Redha, Emirates COO, said the testing process went “smoothly,” and that the airline was “working on plans to scale up testing capabilities in the future and to extend it to other flights.”

“This will enable us to conduct on-site tests and provide immediate confirmation for Emirates passengers travelling to countries that require COVID-19 test certificates,” Al Redha said in the release.

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Could blood tests before flights become the new normal? Are Canadian airlines considering implementing similar measures?

Here’s a look at what could happen.

What have Canadian airlines said?

In an email to Global News, WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell said this is not something the airline is considering at this time.

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But, Bell said WestJet has implemented a number of other measures amid the outbreak including enforcing seat distancing, aircraft cleaning and sanitation and requiring all passengers to wear masks during flights.

She said WestJet is also enforcing physical distancing for crew members and the public.

“WestJet remains focused on the health and safety of WestJetters and guests,” Bell wrote in the email.

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Global News reached out to Air Canada for comment but did not hear back by time of publication.

Meanwhile, the federal government has also enforced a number of measures in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 among travellers.

Last month Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced only four of Canada’s airports — Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Vancouver International Airport, Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and Calgary International Airport — would be receiving international flights.

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Anyone who is showing symptoms of COVID-19 is not being permitted to board a flight to Canada, and all travellers returning to the country from abroad, regardless of if they are symptomatic, are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

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The government has also increased screening at airports, has closed the country’s borders to foreign travellers and have urged Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel.

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Privacy, liability concerns

Bryan Del Monte, president of The Aviation Agency, said the type of testing conducted in Dubai poses a number of security and liability concerns.

First and foremost, Del Monte said airlines are “not the right actors to be doing this.”

“It’s not clear that these tests are a good idea, but in any event even if they are, then we shouldn’t be doing it ad-hoc with private enterprises doing this activity,” he said.

“It should be standardized, [and] you’re probably going to have to do it at a checkpoint with all kinds of regulations about the data and how it’s protected and how long it’s kept and all of that good stuff.”
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Del Monte added there would need to be clear, internationally agreed-upon rules to govern who can access the data gathered and where it can be sent.

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He also voiced concerns that the tests may give passengers a false sense of security.

He said “given the state of the technology,” it is not clear how effective these blood tests are, meaning they could result in false positives, or miss those who are carrying the virus.

Del Monte said it’s difficult to say whether such tests will become more common given the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, but that he “certainly hopes not.”

He noted there are public health precedents and laws in place that need to help govern the next steps forward, and that they should be respected.

“Before countries and or companies just run out and do their own thing, there needs to be a thoughtful, consolidated, coordinated approach,” he said. “Because otherwise, you’re going to create all these displacements in the system, create all these problems, create competition between airlines in order to have testing.”

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But, not everyone agrees.

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In an email to Global News, Gabor Lukacs, founder of Air Passenger Rights said as long as the tests are run hygienically, he thinks it is a “great initiative.”

“Germany implemented roadside tests, and it’s perhaps the reason for their success in flattening the curve,” he wrote.

Lukacs said he would “welcome such tests in Canada as long as we don’t have a vaccine.”

“In the current situation, this testing is no more infringing than a security screening: it serves the purpose of protecting the health and safety of fellow passengers,” he wrote. “It is legitimate.”

Blood test efficacy

But some have expressed concerns about the efficacy of blood tests.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said doctors should “be aware” that most serology tests haven’t been reviewed by the FDA.

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“Quality is highly variable, with some or perhaps many giving uncertain results,” he wrote. “False positive rates may be inappropriately high. Patients and doctors shouldn’t rely on unproven tests for clinical decisions.”

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He said depending on the test, false positive rates can range from 25 to 50 per cent.

“Meaning tests that return positive results saying you have antibodies to COVID-19 may be wrong as much as half the time,” he wrote. “Many tests have 95 per cent specificity which leaves false positives high.”

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But, in an email to Global News, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, said without knowing which test was done by the DHA, it is unclear what the validity of the approach is.

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Global News reached out to Dubai Health Authority to clarify what type of blood test was used, but did not hear back by time of publication.

Across Canada, health officials have been using use nose and throat swabs to test for the virus.

“The nasopharyngeal swabs used to detect COVID19 that we are using in Canada are a very good test,” Bogoch told Global News.