As health officials continue to work to stave off a second wave of the novel coronavirus pandemic, experts say the approval of a new rapid test for the virus will allow for a more targeted and proactive approach.
A day earlier, the government announced it had signed a deal to secure 7.9 million Abbott ID Now COVID-19 rapid tests once they were approved.
The tests are the fourth to be approved by Health Canada, but are able to return results the fastest.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said these types of rapid tests will “help a lot.”
He said it will help clear some of backlog in laboratories, and it will allow for testing to occur in more places, making it more accessible for Canadians.
“We’ll be able to reach more people and do more tests,” he said. “So it’s really great.”
However, Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease expert with McMaster University in Hamilton, said while the test will be helpful, it likely won’t clear the backlog immediately.
“It’s a test that we have certain niches that it can be used for, to take some of the pressure off of our testing capacity system,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re going to necessarily take 65,000 tests, run them through this machine and be done with it to get rid of our backlog either.”
He said while it may not help our current backlog, if planned effectively, it “might help reduce it going forward.”
Furness said one of the largest benefits of the new rapid tests, is that it will also allow the country to do “risk-based” or “sentinel” testing.
This means health care professionals could take the testing kits to different areas in a community and test people who may not be showing any symptoms, but would be considered high risk for virus transmission.
This includes front-line health care workers, teachers, long-term care facility employees, grocery store clerks and restaurant and bar staff.
“We know where COVID goes,” he said. “So we can situate these tests in a very targeted, intelligent fashion.”
This is particularly important, Furness explained, because half of COVID-19 transmission is asymptomatic.
“The more testing you do of people who are not symptomatic, the more cases you catch,” he said. “The more cases you catch and the earlier you get them, the less transmission there is,” he said.
“So this would be a game changer.”
Furness said these rapid tests will be Canada’s first opportunity to deploy a “proactive testing strategy,” adding that rapid tests will allow health officials to “get ahead of this thing.”
Chagla, said the tests will not only be useful in high-risk settings, but also in remote locations where the traditional COVID-19 tests could take days to process with samples needing to be sent away to a laboratory.
He said people in remote communities could take a rapid test while they wait for their other test to be processed.
“At least you have some sense of what’s going on,” he said. “It may not be perfect, but it’s better than nothing at that point.“
Prioritizing test delivery
In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand said deliveries of the tests are expected to begin “in the coming weeks.”
What’s more, a spokesperson for the ministry told the Canadian Press 2.5 million rapid tests are to be delivered before the end of the year to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
The agency will then distribute them to provinces that need them.
Global News reached out to the PHAC to determine how the agency plans to prioritize delivery of the tests, but did not hear back by time of publication.
Chagla said first and foremost, health authorities need to look at the current situation to identify where this rapid test could be best used to help alleviate pressure.
“For example, some of that asymptomatic testing that’s being done in places like Shopper’s Drug Mart is a pretty good target because those are tests that people have to go for as part of targeted testing and screening,” he said. “And so that’s something that could certainly be diverted very easily.”
Chagla said long-term care homes and remote locations are other places the rapid tests should be sent first.
He said there may be “other applicable settings” like schools and hospitals where the tests would also be useful.
At-home rapid tests
Dr. Funmi Okunola MD and COVID-19 Medical Advisor, said she is “pleased” the government has approved the Abbott ID rapid tests, calling it a “step in the right direction.”
However, she has been advocating for the approval of cheap-paper based rapid tests to be used.
Currently, all tests for COVID-19 approved by Health Canada require administration by a health care professional.
She said if all Canadians took the at-home tests — which would be made of paper, affordable and easy to use — experts would have a much better understanding of how the virus is moving through the population.
“The vast majority of people that are getting SARS-CoV-2 which leads to COVID-19, are just not being tested,” she said.
What’s more, Okunola said COVID-19 is a “really serious illness,” that has proven to have lasting effects in some patients.
She said small studies have shown 78 per cent of hospital admitted patients ended up having chronic medical issues as a result of COVID-19, and around one third of the community based sufferers did.
Okunola said if Canada were to use these at-home tests and test more widely, it could help “plan for the future.”
“There’s a possibility that we could be sitting on a time bomb of chronic illness associated with COVID-19, and testing people more widely would help us to prepare for that and allow us to understand how the virus moves through the community much better.”
Furness echoed Okunola’s remarks, saying while the rapid tests approved by Health Canada are useful, at-home screening tests could be even moreso.
“A rapid test at home should not be understood as a diagnostic test that gives you a diagnosis of a disease,” Furness explained. “It could be seen as a screening tool. It should be seen a little bit like taking your temperature at home.”
He said anyone who gets a positive result would then follow up with a laboratory test.
Furness said this type of screening test would be “enormously useful,” and would help alleviate the backlog of tests in Canada’s laboratories, and would allow businesses and schools to remain open more safely.
— With files from Global News’ Emerald Bensadoun and The Canadian Press