The British Columbia government is facing new pressure to increase access to rapid COVID-19 tests, as the tools are being rolled out in increasing numbers around the world.
While they are less accurate than PCR tests at identifying the virus, rapid antigen tests have become an everyday part of the public health response in countries like the U.K. and Germany, where they are cheap and readily available.
In British Columbia, the tests are not available in stores, and the province has only deployed them in a handful of targeted environments.
“It’s one of the tools in the tool belt. Is it the only tool? No, but it’s a great tool to be used,” BC Liberal health critic Renee Merrifield said.
“We’re watching other jurisdictions, whether it’s the United States, whether it’s Europe, literally giving them out. And we still don’t have any.”
That appears to be a stance shared by many in B.C., where nearly 8,500 people have signed an online petition calling on the province to make the tests available for free in a two-day period.
While a box of two tests is currently available for sale at pharmacies in Washington state for about $30, British Columbians who want one will, in most cases, have to order the product online.
Asked this week about why the tests are not more widely available, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry was cool to the idea.
“It’s still unclear whether — and we are looking at whether — it makes sense to have rapid tests available for people,” she said.
“More and more we are learning across the country that using rapid tests for asymptomatic testing, particularly vaccinated people, has a very, very low yield.”
Henry said her priority was on using rapid tests in situations such as when a parent was concerned about whether they should send their child to school or not because they were showing symptoms.
But rapid tests have not been made widely available to parents, and the province has used a tiny fraction of tests it has been given by the federal government to perform screening in higher-risk environments such as long-term care.
Ontario, for example, has accepted 31.3 million tests from Ottawa and used about 30 per cent of them. Alberta has received 11.2 million tests and used about 15 per cent of those.
B.C. has received just 3.2 million tests, and used only used 10 per cent — 300,000 — of them.
“I find it hard to find a reason not to be using it in places where it’s needed,” infectious diseases physician Dr. Victor Leung said.
Leung said that while the tests are not accurate enough to be a diagnostic tool, they can be extremely effective at helping nail down hotspots, as a public health tool and as a tool for early detection in clusters.
“If the goal is to reduce and break the chains of transmission, early detection of asymptomatic cases or even symptomatic cases using rapid antigen tests is quite helpful,” he said, adding that schools are the kind of setting where they can work if used right.
“This is not something new, (it) has been utilized in many settings. We have lots of learnings from those settings that can be taken,” he said.
While the rapid tests may not be the perfect tool, Merrifield said she can’t understand why general public can’t get their hands on them to use according to their own discretion and threshold for risk.
“People are wanting to take that level of responsibility and wanting to see that they can actually have a part in keeping people safe,” she said.